June 3, 2021

What you can do to prevent cervical cancer

Cancer of the cervix is highly preventable. Vaccination and regular screenings can greatly reduce your risk.

Cervical cancer was once a leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States, but rates have decreased significantly in the past 20 years. This improvement was largely due to an increase in regular screenings, since cervical cancer can usually be treated successfully when it’s found early.

Unfortunately, cervical cancer screening rates dropped at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and some of that progress may have been lost. If you think you may be overdue for your cervical cancer screening, contact your doctor.

“Cervical cancer is a preventable cancer,” said Kaiser Permanente ob-gyn Lawrence Lurvey, MD. “Kaiser Permanente’s goal is to eliminate cervical cancer among our patients. Our 3-part strategy includes vaccination, screening, and personalized follow-up on all abnormal test results.”

Vaccination

In most cases, cervical cancer is caused by HPV, and there’s a simple way to prevent HPV: getting vaccinated.

“The HPV vaccine is part of the routine childhood vaccinations that help prevent a variety of cancers, including throat and rectal, in both men and women,” said Dr. Lurvey. “HPV is transmitted through sexual contact, so the best time for someone to get the vaccine is well before they become sexually active.”

Kaiser Permanente recommends that children start the HPV vaccine series as early as age 9 and complete it by age 13. Even if you miss that window, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that any young adult through age 26 should get the vaccine. If you’re over the age of 26, you can talk to doctor about whether you may still benefit from getting the vaccine.

The human papillomavirus, or HPV, is passed from one person to another during sex. Half of all sexually active people have HPV at some point, often with no symptoms. HPV infections usually go away on their own. When they don’t, they can cause cervical cancer. The best way to prevent cervical cancer is to get the HPV vaccine, recommended for boys and girls beginning at age 9. Most women should get screened for cervical cancer between the ages of 21 and 65.  Kaiser Permanente leads the nation in cervical cancer prevention, with the highest screening and HPV vaccination rates.*  *Source: 2020 Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set (HEDIS)

Screening

While the HPV vaccine provides long-lasting protection, it doesn’t protect against all types of HPV, and it doesn’t prevent all forms of cervical cancer. That’s why screening is an essential part of Kaiser Permanente’s strategy to eliminate cervical cancer.

For decades, the Pap test was the gold standard for cervical cancer screenings, but doctors are increasingly recommending the HPV test, or both a Pap test and an HPV test.

“For a long time, women were told that they had to go in every year for a Pap test,” Dr. Lurvey explained, “but primary HPV screening is actually a more advanced precision medicine test. It can detect viral DNA long before it becomes cancerous, and it allows you to go 5 years between screenings.”

No matter which test your doctor recommends, getting your recommended screening can help prevent cancer before it starts.

If your screening results are normal, it’s important to continue returning for regular screenings so your health care team can monitor changes over time. If you have had a positive HPV or Pap test result in the past, you may need to be screened more often. Talk to your doctorabout how often you should be tested.

Follow-up

If your HPV test reveals a viral infection, or if your Pap test comes back as abnormal or unclear, it doesn’t mean you have cancer now, but it’s a warning sign that cancer could develop in the future. In these cases, your health care team will work with you to develop a follow-up plan to help prevent cancer.

Follow-up plans are personalized, taking into account your age, previous test results, and other risk factors to provide a specific recommendation unique to each patient.

“The most recent data shows there are still over 12,000 cases of cervical cancer a year in the U.S. While that is a 25% reduction from 20 years ago, our goal is to get to zero,” said Dr. Lurvey. “When women have access to the care they need and follow the recommendations for vaccination and screening, their chances of getting cervical cancer are significantly reduced.”