Cervical cancer in women is one of the most common cancers in the world.
In the United States, we’ve seen a significant decrease in the incidence of cervical cancer since the 1970s, primarily due to screening with the Pap smear. However, while the number of cases has decreased, cervical cancer is still relatively common.
From 2011-2015, 62,645 new cases of cervical cancer were reported, and 20,673 women died from cervical cancer in the United States, according to the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For every 100,000 women, eight new cervical cancer cases were reported and two died from cancer.
In 2021, the American Cancer Society predicts there will be approximately 14,480 new cases with 4,290 deaths.
Most cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus, a common virus that can be passed from one person to another during sex.
The CDC says the human papillomavirus is so common that most people are infected at some time in their lives. HPV usually causes no symptoms so you don’t know that you have it. For most women, HPV will go away on its own; however, if it does not, there is a chance that over time it may lead to cervical cancer.
A Pap smear is a procedure to test for cervical cancer in women. It involves collecting cells from the cervix, the lower end of the uterus at the top of the vagina.
Typically, the screening will begin at 21 years old. The guidelines have changed over time, but we know that women younger than that are very unlikely to have cervical cancer.
The good news is that cervical cancer is the only cancer that is preventable with a vaccine.
The vaccine, Gardasil 9, initially was approved for people between the ages of 11 and 26 years old. You can go as young as 9 years old in higher risk groups.
Based on recent evidence, in October 2018 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration changed that guideline and now Gardasil 9 is offered for people up to age 45.
We encourage people who have not previously been vaccinated who are 45 years old or younger to get the vaccine. It’s given in a two- or three-shot series.
Now that we have guidelines for screenings and Pap smears that are sometimes three years and sometimes five years, women hear that and they think, “Oh, I don’t need to go see my doctor that often.”
Really what we want to encourage is for women to see their doctor every year, whether it’s their gynecologist or primary care provider who is comfortable performing Pap smears, because that is the best way to detect any abnormalities in the cervix. Then we can tailor the screening based on their Pap smear history, their previous medical history and the type of test we’re doing.
Dr. Michael Robinson works with NHRMC Physician Group - New Hanover Gynecologic Oncology.