The cancer you can prevent: How guidelines, screenings for Cervical cancer have changed

3 Things: Preventing cervical cancer

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Did you know cervical cancer is the cancer that has a vaccine that can prevent you from getting it in the future? If you didn’t know that – it should certainly get your attention.

January is Cervical Cancer Awareness month so we wanted to spotlight cervical health. Because this is a cancer you can prevent. It was once one of the most common causes of cancer deaths for American women - but the diagnosis and death rates have been dropping. Much of the credit goes to new preventative tests and treatments - like pap smears and HPV vaccines. But the screening guidelines have changed, and many people don’t realize it.

The reason: pap smears which are the screening tool used to analyze the cells of a woman’s cervix, have come a long these days. They are now highly specialized and the technology is more advanced, which means doctors can now know more much more about the sample of cells taken from your cervix -- and then examined under a microscope. As a result, for the majority of women - you no longer have to get a pap every year.

These are updated guidelines: for women ages 21 to 29, you can get a pap every three years unless tests come back abnormal. Then you may have to still get one every year. Another big change: there’s no need for a pap for young women and girls under 21. Doctors say research shows our immune system is so effective during this period, there’s no benefit to having one.

For women ages 30 to 65 -- you only have to go every five years if you have the specialized testing for HPV, the Human Papillomavirus. And, that is what Dr. Genevieve Brauning from Novant Health, says is key. “Depending on your age, we may test those cells from the cervix for the HPV virus and that’s an important development,” she said. “That’s a new thing and that’s what has enabled us to put more time between pap smears because we have more specialized testing to look for the HPV virus.”

The Human Papillomavirus is a very common sexually transmitted infection. It has hundreds of strains and there’s a common misconception about HPV: once you have it you can’t get rid of it. But, that’s not true. In the majority of cases, your body will detect the virus and clear it on its own. Just like with the common cold. Of course it takes longer - one to five years.

However, there are some strains -- nine of them in fact - that are high risk. These are the ones that increase your chance of getting cervical cancer.

“If you have a viral infection with one of those high risk strains, we want to know about that because we want to be watching your cervix very closely to make sure that changes aren’t progressing, that you’re not developing precancerous cells,” Brauning said. “The great news is that this is the perfect example of the benefit of a screening test.”

That’s right - there’s a vaccine that protects from the high-risk HPV strains that can cause cervical cancer. In fact, Dr Brauning said, “the data continues to show this is the only vaccine we have that decreases your chances of getting cancer in the future. That’s powerful.”

And, it decreases your chances of getting cervical cancer by 90%!

“If you said to someone, I can give you a shot of something that will decrease your chance of getting cervical cancer by 90 percent - and if that’s how we presented it, people might think a little differently about it,” Brauning pointed out.

That shot – is called Gardisil. It’s approved for both boys *and girls -- and doctors recommend your child gets it starting at age 11.

But Dr. Brauning understands parents' hesitation with getting their child vaccinated. “Many parents say 'well why does my child need this vaccine? They’re not sexually active at age 11. We can revisit this later’,” she said. “That’s exactly why we want them to have it then. The younger they are, the better the immunity response will be and the more protection long-term they will have.

If we delay that vaccine -- let’s say we delay to age 21. They’re actually not going to have as much protection.”

If you’re wondering why boys are included in the recommendations from the CDC to get the vaccine, it’s because boys are carriers of HPV. Remember - extremely common STI with hundreds of strains. Researchers have learned HPV can live in other areas besides the cervix. In addition to genital warts, it can also cause other changes in the mouth. So while it doesn’t lead to cervical cancer in men - it can lead to oral and tongue cancers in men.

And Gardisil is covered by insurance, too. There is another vaccine on the market, but Gardisil is the only that covers all nine of the high-risk strains of HPV that can cause cervical cancer.

There are two other things to know: The vaccine only protects you against the high-risk strains of HPV. You could still get HPV - but not the kind that causes cancer. And in the majority of those cases - remember, your body clears the virus on its own. Second, ladies, just because we can now go longer without getting a pap doesn’t mean you skip your yearly well woman’s appointment. You still need to go, check in with your doc and get a pelvic exam -- which is different from a pap. Dr. Brauning wanted me to be sure that I made that clear.

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