There are several types of gynecologic cancers that affect the female reproductive system, including endometrial, ovarian, cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancer.
In the case of cervical cancer, there is good news. Over the past 40 years, the mortality rate for cervical cancer patients has decreased by over 50 percent, thanks to the increased prevalence of the Pap test. Even better: In many cases, cervical cancer can be avoided altogether. To put yourself in the best position to prevent it, here are five things every woman (and man) should know about cervical cancer:
1. Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that causes about 99 percent of cervical cancer cases. There are over 100 different types of the virus, the most common being HPV 16 and HPV 18, which lead to approximately 70 percent of all known cervical cancers. About 14 million new infections are diagnosed every year. Many cases of HPV clear up on their own, but persistent infections are what can cause serious health issues.
2. Cervical cancer is often preventable.
The HPV vaccine is an important preventive measure. There are three different types of Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccines. The first one is Gardasil, which was approved in 2006. The newer version, Gardasil 9, was approved in 2014, and Cervarix was approved in 2009. Gardasil protects against HPV 16 and HPV 18, which are the most common types, and Gardasil 9 adds additional protection against several other high-risk HPVs.
The HPV vaccine is recommended for young men and women, ages nine to 26, and has proven to be quite effective. Gardasil 9 was shown to be 97 percent effective in preventing cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancer, as well as additional types of high-risk HPVs that it targets.
3. Lesbians and bisexual women are less likely to be screened for cervical cancer.
Sadly, studies have shown that lesbians and bisexual women are less likely to undergo routine health services, including Pap tests. There are several reasons for this, including bad experiences with health care providers, misinformation about the necessity for cervical cancer screenings and fear of discrimination from health care providers.
4. All women should get yearly pelvic exams.
It is crucial for all women age 21 and older, regardless of sexual orientation, to be screened for cervical cancer by getting a Pap smear. This procedure collects cells from the cervix to be examined for any abnormalities. Women 21 to 29 should have this test every three years, provided the results of their last test came back normal. For women 30 to 64, Pap smears can be performed every five years if their last round of tests came back normal.
While maintaining this Pap smear schedule is important, it is still crucial that women go to their healthcare provider yearly for a pelvic exam. A pelvic exam is different than a Pap test, and can help detect other reproductive illnesses.
5. Cervical cancer may not cause obvious symptoms at first.
Some women have no obvious symptoms before being diagnosed with cervical cancer, which is why it is so important to maintain a consistent Pap and pelvic exam schedule, regardless of whether or not you're experiencing pain, discomfort or any other issues.
The most common symptom that some women do experience is abnormal bleeding. For those who still have their periods, any bleeding in between periods is considered abnormal. Women with irregular periods may have a harder time distinguishing abnormal bleeding, so it's important for all women to pay close attention to their bodies. Only you can recognize what is out of the ordinary for you. Everyone is different, so if something doesn't seem quite right, seek medical attention.