How can cervical cancer be prevented?
Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers in women worldwide. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to lower your risk. There are ways to help prevent precancer, as well as tests to find precancer early—before it has a chance to turn into cervical cancer. Here’s how to safeguard your cervical health and avoid future problems.
First, it’s helpful to understand what precancer is in this context. It refers to abnormal cell changes in the cervix. These precancerous changes are not harmful, but they do have the potential to develop into cervical cancer over time. Think of precancer as a warning sign. It’s letting you know that if the abnormal cells aren’t treated, they might become cancer cells.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is what triggers the cervical cell changes. Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by this virus. HPV is extremely common. It spreads through skin-to-skin sexual contact and usually has no symptoms. However, not every HPV infection will turn into cancer. In fact, HPV tends to clear up on its own. Only certain HPV strains can lead to cervical cancer.
3 ways to help prevent precancer
To reduce your risk for cervical cancer, it’s important to prevent the precancer cervical cell changes. To protect yourself, make sure to do the following:
1. Get the HPV vaccine
The HPV vaccine can help shield you against certain types of HPV infection. The vaccine works best if you get it before you’ve been exposed to HPV. The CDC recommends parents get children vaccinated in early adolescence, before they become sexually active:
Children ages 9 to 14 should follow a 2-dose schedule.
Teens and young adults ages 15 to 26 should follow a 3-dose schedule. This schedule is also recommended for children under 15 years if they have a condition that weakens the immune system, such as cancer.
There’s also a vaccine available for adults ages 27 to 45. If you didn’t get fully vaccinated when you were younger, talk with your healthcare provider to decide if it would be helpful now.
2. Use condoms during sex
Condoms may not always be convenient, but they will always be worth it. Condoms can reduce your chances of getting HPV. They also help protect against chlamydia, another infection that’s been linked to a higher risk for cervical cancer.
Use condoms correctly and consistently each time you have sex. But keep in mind that the HPV virus can spread through skin-to-skin contact with infected areas not covered by a condom, such as the surrounding genital skin. Still, even though condoms can’t completely prevent infection, they are associated with a lower rate of cervical cancer.
3. Steer clear of tobacco products
Smoking increases your risk for precancerous cervical cells, which could lead to cervical cancer. The carcinogens in tobacco products have been found in cervical mucus. Researchers believe that these substances damage the DNA of cervical cells. Plus, smoking can weaken the immune system. This makes it tougher for your body to fend off HPV infections.
Quitting is not easy. Reach out to your healthcare provider for tips and support. They can help make this transition smoother and more manageable.
Finding precancer lesions
A Pap test can find precancer cells of the cervix before they become cancer. Having regular Pap tests gives you a better chance of preventing cancer. In fact, most cases of cervical cancer are found in women who haven't had regular or any screening tests.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) notes that all women should get regular Pap tests starting at age 21. These recommendations also say that:
Starting at age 21 until age 29, women should have a Pap test (cytology test) alone every 3 years. For women ages 25 to 29 that are average risk, an alternative to Pap-only screening can be HPV testing (also called primary high-risk HPV test) alone every 5 years starting at age 25 years.
Women between ages 30 and 65 should have an HPV test alone every 5 years. Or they may have a combination HPV and Pap test (called cotest) done every 5 years. Or they may have a Pap test alone every 3 years.
Women older than 65 who have had regular screening with normal results can stop screening for cervical cancer. Once screening is stopped, it shouldn't be started again.
Women who have an increased risk for cervical cancer because of a weak immune system or other risk factors may need screening more often and not stop the screening based on age Talk with your healthcare provider about screening.
A woman who has had a hysterectomy with removal of the cervix for reasons not related to cervical cancer and who has no history of cervical cancer or serious precancer lesions doesn't need to be screened.
A woman who has been vaccinated against HPV should follow the screening advice for her age group.
The American Cancer Society changed their recommendations in 2020 from those noted above. They advise that screening not start until age 25, and that the preferred screening method should be HPV testing alone every 5 years until age 65. Getting a Pap test alone every 3 years is considered acceptable when HPV testing isn't available.
Ask your healthcare provider what screening schedule is right for you.