This Cervical Health Awareness Month, protect yourself with a screening and a vaccine

As Cervical Health Awareness Month comes to a close, we encourage everyone to consider the different ways that you can protect yourself and the ones you love from cancer.  

Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers found in women and is one of the most preventable. Every year, nearly 14,000 people are diagnosed with cervical cancer. With regular screenings and the HPV vaccine, about 93% of these could be prevented. Why risk it? Schedule a screening or HPV vaccination with your doctor today in honor of Cervical Health Awareness Month.

What causes cervical cancer?

Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by two strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a group of viruses that causes the majority of cases of cervical cancer as well as oropharyngeal, anal, penile, vulvar, and vaginal cancers. HPV infection is extremely common: almost all sexually active people – regardless of gender – will have HPV at some point in their lives. Currently, about one in four people in the United States – nearly 80 million – are infected with one type of HPV.

HPV is typically symptom-free, so you might not ever know if you have it. It can live dormant in your body for years! Most HPV infections clear up on their own, but in some cases the virus can cause cells in the cervix to become cancerous if left untreated. However, there is a vaccine that can protect you and your children from ever getting HPV in the first place.

Preventing cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is the only gynecological cancer that has both a vaccine and a screening, which makes it one of the most easily preventable cancers. As with many diseases, prevention is the best way to stop cervical cancer from developing.

The most upstream approach in preventing cervical cancer is the HPV vaccine, which effectively prevents HPV infection and cervical cancer. The vaccine requires 2-3 doses and is recommended for all adolescents as young as age 9 up through adults age 45. Ideally, an individual would complete the vaccination series before becoming sexually active, thus protecting against several strains of HPV infection, including those that cause cancer.

Through the Washington State Childhood Vaccine Program, all children under 19 years of age are eligible for free vaccines, including HPV. Many students can also access vaccine care through school-based health centers (SBHCs) which are located in high schools throughout King County. This map shows where all SBHCs are located throughout the county.  

In addition to the HPV vaccine, routine screenings help prevent cervical cancer. The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancerous cervical cells that may become cancer if left untreated. If you have a cervix, most doctors recommend that you start getting tested as soon as you become sexually active or turn 21 years old, and then every 3-5 years after that. Individuals should discuss screenings with their doctors to determine a schedule that works best for them.

The Breast, Cervical, and Colon Health Program (BCCHP) helps qualifying individuals get free or low-cost cervical cancer screenings. These services are also available to the transgender community. Screenings are important in catching cancers early when they are treatable.

Quitting smoking is also an effective way to reduce your risk of all cancers, including cervical cancer. Many chemicals in cigarettes are carcinogenic, meaning that they can cause cancer. Additionally, smoking can increase the risk of HPV infection leading to cancer.

If you need help quitting tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, talk to your doctor or call the Quitline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW. You can also download the Washington State Department of Health free quit app for help quitting.

Nobody should die of cervical cancer

Cervical cancer kills more than 4,000 people every year in the United State, despite the availability of a vaccine and screening to help prevent it. Protect yourself and your family this Cervical Health Month by learning what you can do to prevent cervical cancer.