Updated: Nov 15
An HPV diagnosis does not mean you have cervical cancer. Nearly all sexually active people will contract HPV at some point in their lives if they don’t have the HPV vaccine. There are numerous HPV subtypes, but the two that are most commonly associated with cervical cancer are HPV 16 and 18. Together, these two HPV types account for 70 per cent of cervical cancers. The HPV vaccine protects against both HPV 16 and 18. Currently, healthcare professionals recommend an HPV vaccination at age 11 or 12. People up to age 26 may get the vaccine on their doctor’s recommendation. However, the vaccine is most effective in people who have not yet been exposed to HPV. What’s more, the vaccine protects against cervical cancer. It may prevent cancer of the vulva and vagina, penis, anus, mouth, and throat.
In addition to the vaccine, taking the following steps may help reduce the risk of cervical cancer:
If you smoke, consider quitting. Tobacco use may lead to DNA changes in the cells of the cervix. Talk with your doctor about creating a smoking cessation plan to lower your cancer risk.
Use protection. Barrier methods, like a condom, can protect against the virus.
Test regularly. Pap and HPV tests may find potential cancerous cells long before symptoms show up.
Additional steps that you can take to help prevent cervical cancer are:
Having regular screenings. Cancerous and precancerous changes can be detected by your doctor by using a Pap smear, HPV test, or both.
Using a condom or other barrier method each time you have sex can help protect against contracting HPV. However, it is important to note that a condom or other barrier method cannot prevent all skin-to-skin contact during sex.
Getting regular STI screenings. Regular STI screenings can help detect infections like HIV and chlamydia. Ask your sexual partners to get tested as well.
Considering quitting smoking. Quitting smoking can lower your risk for developing cervical cancer as well as many other health conditions. Talk with your doctor about smoking cessation and other supportive resources.
Eating a nutrient-dense diet. Eating a diet that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, and antioxidant foods is good for your overall health and may also help reduce cervical cancer risk.
Exercise regularly. A 2020 research review showed that regular physical activity improves the survival rate of people with cancer and reduces the risk of cancer returning.
Do people who got the HPV vaccine still need to get cervical cancer screening?
Yes, vaccinated women will still need regular cervical cancer screening because the vaccine protects against most but not all HPV types that cause cervical cancer. Also, women who got the vaccine after becoming sexually active may not get the full benefit of the vaccine if they had already been exposed to HPV.
The new guideline recommends screening for those who have had the HPV vaccine. It does not recommend making a screening decision based on whether an individual has had the vaccine. But, over time, as rates of HPV vaccination increase among people who are eligible for cervical cancer screening, we may see more changes in screening recommendations down the road.
If I have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, what are the treatment options?
There are several different treatment options for cervical cancer. These include:
Surgery. A variety of surgical procedures can be used to remove cancer from the body. A couple of examples are conization and hysterectomy.
Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells or prevent them from growing. This type of treatment can be given either externally or internally.
Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses strong drugs to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing and dividing.
Targeted therapy. Targeted therapy uses drugs that target specific molecules that are present in cancer cells. Because of this, it’s less likely to cause harm to healthy cells.
Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment that helps your immune system respond to cancer cells.
Different treatments may be provided by different doctors on your medical team.
Gynecologic oncologists are doctors who have been trained to treat cancers in a woman’s reproductive system.
Surgeons are doctors who perform operations.
Medical oncologists are doctors who treat cancer with medicine.
Radiation oncologists are doctors who treat cancer with radiation.
Which treatment is used can depend on factors like your age, overall health, and the stage of cancer. For example, surgical approaches are often recommended for earlier stages of cervical cancer. Treatments like radiation and chemotherapy are typically used for later stages of cervical cancer, with surgery as an addition but primary surgery can be considered as well. It’s also possible that your treatment plan will involve a combination of different treatments.
Additionally, many cervical cancer treatments carry a risk of fertility loss. Due to this, some may choose to decline certain treatment options that allow them to defer full treatment for a short period of time until their fertility goals are accomplished.
Are there other ways to prevent HPV?
For those who are sexually active, condoms may lower the chances of getting HPV, if used with every sex act, from start to finish. Condoms may also lower the risk of developing HPV-related diseases (genital warts and cervical cancer). But HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom—so condoms may not fully protect against HPV.
People can also lower their chances of getting HPV by being in a faithful relationship with one partner; limiting their number of sex partners; and choosing a partner who has had no or few prior sex partners. But even people with only one-lifetime sex partner can get HPV. And it may not be possible to determine if a partner who has been sexually active in the past is currently infected. That’s why the only sure way to prevent HPV is to avoid all sexual activity.
Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in females. Most cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in women between the ages of 35 and 44 years with the average age of diagnosis being about 50 years old.
HPV is the main risk factor for cervical cancer. Others can include:
long-term oral contraceptive use
There are many steps that you can take that can help reduce your risk for cervical cancer. Two very important ones are getting the HPV vaccine and making sure to receive regular cervical cancer screenings. The outlook for cervical cancer improves the earlier it’s detected and treated. Because of this, be sure to talk with a doctor if you’re experiencing any signs or symptoms of cervical cancer.
This article is written by: dr. Natalia Liau, MBBS, MSc.