Health & Wellness

How to Prevent Cervical Cancer – Expert Tips and Essential Screening Information

Jan. 30, 2024

Learn essential cervical cancer prevention tips: Regular Pap & HPV tests, HPV vaccination, and education are key, especially during January's Cervical Cancer Awareness Month.

January is a pivotal month for women's health, marking Cervical Cancer Awareness Month.

Every year in Ohio, more black women die from cervical cancer than any other group of women in the state.

This global health event calls for attention to a disease that, according to the American Cancer Society, affects thousands each year yet remains highly preventable - through regular cervical cancer screening, treatment of abnormal areas of the cervix detected by screening (cervical precancer), and vaccination against the virus that contributes to the development of cervical cancer—the human papillomavirus (HPV).

The World Health Organization echoes this sentiment, emphasizing the crucial role of education in combating cervical cancer worldwide.

The Importance of Regular Cervical Cancer Screening: When & How

When you receive a cervical cancer screening, your provider will perform a pap test and when appropriate, an HPV test—the HPV test looks for the virus that can cause cervical precancer or cancer, and the Pap test (or Pap smear) searches for any changes of the cervix that could be precancer or cancer.

Advancements in Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines

The evolution of screening guidelines reflects advancements in our understanding of cervical cancer. Healthcare professionals now support a balanced screening approach tailored to age and health history. Regular cervical cancer screening remains a key part of cancer prevention, which includes Pap and HPV tests.

Both tests are typically completed in a provider’s office or clinic. During the Pap test, the doctor places a small instrument in the vagina, called a speculum. This helps the doctor examine the vagina and cervix and collect a few cells from the cervix utilizing a small swab or brush to test for precancer or cancer.

How often to get screened has evolved—in the past, we recommended screening every year, but now, the recommendation is every three to five years if your screening results are normal. Your healthcare provider can let you know how often you should get screened. Women without a cervix (previous hysterectomy) may not need any further screening; however, it is important to speak with your provider to ensure you no longer need screening.

Regardless of the screening interval, EVERY woman (person with a cervix) should start screening at the age of 21. Some people will need to be screened earlier because of certain health conditions.

Understanding Symptoms and Early Detection Saves Lives!

The earlier we detect cervical cancer, the better the chance of long-term survival. In fact, according to the ASCO, incidence rates of cervical cancer dropped by more than 50% from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s due in part to an increase in screening. Black and brown women have a higher chance of their cervical cancer being detected at a later stage in their life—which directly impacts their chance of living longer and disease-free. It’s important to know what symptoms to recognize as being potentially abnormal. Early cervical cancers often do not cause unusual symptoms. However, when the cancer grows larger, many women notice abnormal vaginal bleeding. They may notice:

  • Bleeding that occurs in between regular menstrual periods.
  • Menstrual periods that last longer and are heavier than normal for them.
  • Bleeding, even spotting, after going through menopause.
  • Bleeding after sexual intercourse, douching or a pelvic exam.
  • Some women may also notice:
  • Increased vaginal discharge that may be watery, a different color or a different scent.
  • Pelvic pain.
  • Pain during sexual intercourse.

Any symptom listed above is a good reason to schedule an appointment with your family doctor, women’s health provider or gynecologist.

Treatment Options and Advances

In instances where cervical cancer is detected, treatment advances have increased, improving chances of survival significantly. Early detection, often through regular screening, increases the likelihood of successful treatment, highlighting the importance of awareness and proactive health care.

Understanding the Cervical Cancer and HPV Connection

High-risk HPV types are the culprits behind most cervical cancer cases. Persistent infection with these strains can lead to abnormal cell changes, setting the stage for cancer development.

HPV Vaccination: Your Shield Against Cervical Cancer

One key to cervical cancer prevention is vaccination against HPV. The HPV vaccine has been in use for well over a decade, and it has been proven safe and effective in the prevention of cervical and other HPV-related cancers. Males and females aged nine–45 can receive the HPV vaccine. Here in Ohio, less than 50% of girls aged 13 – 17 have been vaccinated against HPV. This is similar for boys of the same age group, with a 57% HPV vaccination rate.

For those under the age of 15, two doses of the vaccine are recommended – and for people over the age of 15, the recommendation is three doses.  While coming back for multiple injections may be inconvenient, the protection that vaccination provides against HPV-related cancers is undeniable and well worth the return visits.

Vaccinating against HPV comes with additional benefits – it can help prevent against other cancers including vaginal, vulvar, penile, anal, and HPV-related head and neck cancers.

The HPV vaccine is backed with data from the National Cancer Institute emphasizing how well it prevents  HPV infection and related cancers. By targeting several HPV types, the vaccine plays a decisive role in preventing both cervical cancer and genital warts, marking a significant milestone in disease control.

Identifying and Managing Risk Factors

Identifying and decreasing risk factors for cervical cancer can be a challenge. From infection with high-risk HPV strains to lifestyle factors like smoking, the spectrum of risks underscores the need for personalized prevention strategies.

Comprehensive Prevention: Beyond Vaccination

Beyond vaccination and screening, a range of preventative measures can strengthen one's defense against cervical cancer. Diet, exercise, and avoiding risk factors contribute to a holistic prevention approach. Regular consultations with healthcare professionals ensure that women remain connected and informed.

Takeaways for Cervical Cancer Awareness Month

  • Encourage the HPV vaccination – you can schedule an appointment by contacting your primary healthcare provider or pediatrician.
  • Stay up to date on cervical cancer screening – your family medicine or women’s health provider can provide screening and help you understand your screening needs.
  • Pay attention to any abnormal symptoms previously described – “Don’t Wait, Communicate” with your healthcare provider about your symptoms. You could save a life.

Be informed! Gather information from reputable sources like the National Cancer Institute about cervical cancer prevention.

Frequently Asked Questions About Cervical Cancer Prevention

What is the best way to prevent cervical cancer?

The most effective way to prevent cervical cancer is through regular screening with Pap and HPV tests, HPV vaccination, and by practicing safe sex to reduce HPV transmission.

Can a hysterectomy prevent cervical cancer?

A hysterectomy can prevent cervical cancer if it involves the removal of the cervix and is performed before cancer develops. However, it's a significant procedure and typically not used solely for cancer prevention.

How does the HPV vaccine prevent cervical cancer?

The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that most commonly cause cervical cancer. By creating an immune response, the body is better equipped to fight off these types of HPV if exposed.

Are there natural ways to prevent cervical cancer?

While natural methods cannot replace screening and vaccination, maintaining a healthy immune system through a balanced diet, regular exercise, and not smoking may help reduce the risk. Seeking support for a healthy lifestyle? Learn more about our integrative medicine program at UC Health.

Can diet help in preventing cervical cancer?

A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and antioxidants can support overall health, but it should complement other preventive measures like vaccination and regular screenings.

Does a Pap smear prevent cervical cancer?

A Pap smear can detect abnormal cells early before they turn into cancer. While it doesn’t prevent cancer, it's crucial for early detection and prevention of progression to cancer.

What are the key cervical cancer prevention strategies?

Key strategies include HPV vaccination for both males and females, regular cervical screening, avoiding tobacco, and using condoms to reduce the risk of HPV infection.

How effective is HPV vaccination in preventing cervical cancer?

HPV vaccination is highly effective in preventing cervical cancers that are caused by HPV types covered by the vaccine, with studies showing significant reductions in cervical precancers among vaccinated populations.

What foods should you eat to help prevent cervical cancer?

Foods high in folate, beta-carotene, and vitamins C, E, and A, such as leafy greens, fruits, and vegetables, may help lower the risk of cervical cancer when included as part of a balanced diet.

How can regular health check-ups help in preventing cervical cancer?

Regular health check-ups allow for timely cervical cancer screenings and provide an opportunity to discuss HPV vaccination, which together are critical components in the prevention of cervical cancer.

Empowering Our Communities Through Education

From Cervical Cancer Awareness Month and beyond, let us commit to prevention through screening, vaccination, and education. Our sisters, daughters, mothers, and communities do not have to continue to be impacted by cervical cancer. We can prevent this disease!

Don’t put your health on hold. Find a UC Health Women’s Health provider and schedule a cervical cancer screening today.