Learn About Cervical Cancer And HPV

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Dr. Lawrence Earl, chief operating officer and chief medical officer of ASAP Urgent Care, talks about cervical cancer and how getting an HPV vaccination can help reduce your risk.

Below are some questions with answers provided by Earl. For more information, visit www.ASAPGetBetter.com.

What is cervical cancer?

All cancers are named for the part of the body where they start. Cervical cancer is a disease that starts in the cervix, the lower, narrow end of the uterus. All women are at risk for cervical cancer. It occurs mostly in women over the age of 30 and every year about 12,000 women in the U.S. get cervical cancer. The human papillomavirus (or HPV) is the main cause of cervical cancer. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease – in fact, at least half of sexually active people, men and women, will have HPV at some point in their lives.

What are the symptoms?

Unlike other gynecologic cancers, cervical cancer doesn’t really have signs and symptoms when it begins. Advanced cervical cancer may cause abnormal bleeding or discharge. The best way for women to make sure they are cancer free is to see their gynecologist for an annual PAP test.

Is there specific age or race that is more susceptible?

HPV (human papillomavirus) is the most common sexually transmitted disease, and it affects about 79 million Americans today.

The rate of women getting cervical cancer or dying from cervical cancer varies by race and ethnicity.  In 2010, black women had the highest rate of getting cervical cancer, followed by Hispanic, white, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Asian/Pacific Islander women.

Can it be cured?

Just like other cancers, cervical cancer can be treated – with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and other methods. The type of treatment depends upon how far advanced the cancer is. Following treatment, additional testing will determine whether cancer remains in the body.

Forty years ago cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer death for women in the U.S. Thanks to women getting regular PAP tests, the number of deaths from cervical cancer have decreased significantly. In 2010 (most recent numbers available) 11,818 women in the U.S. were diagnosed with cervical cancer and 3,939 women in the U.S. died from cervical cancer.

How effective is the HPV vaccination?

The FDA has licensed two HPV vaccines as safe and effective. Both vaccines were tested in thousands of people around the world.

Gardasil and Cervarix are highly effective in preventing infection with the types of HPV they target. The vaccines have been shown to provide protection against persistent cervical HPV 16/18 infections for up to eight years, which is the maximum time of research follow-up thus far. More will be known about the total duration of protection as research continues.

HPV vaccination has also been found to prevent nearly 100 percent of the precancerous cervical cell changes that would have been caused by HPV 16/18. The data so far show duration of production for up to 6.4 years with Cervarix and for up to five years for Gardasil—in women who were not infected with HPV at the time of vaccination.

Both Gardasil and Cervarix are designed to be given to people in three doses over a 6-month period. However, because these vaccines do not protect against all HPV types that can cause cancer, pap tests continue to be essential to detect cervical cancers and precancerous changes.

Are there side effects?

Studies have shown no serious side effects. Common, mild side effects included pain where the shot was given, fever, headache and nausea. As of July 2012, approximately 46 million doses of quadrivalent HPV vaccine were distributed in the United States. As with all vaccines, CDC and FDA continue to monitor the safety of these vaccines very carefully. These vaccine safety studies continue to show that HPV vaccines are safe.

What is the age to get the vaccination?

Gardasil is the most commonly available vaccine in the United States. It should be given to both girls and boys between the ages of 11 to 12 (although girls as young as 9 can get the vaccine, as can older boys and girls and young adults who have not previously been vaccinated).

Is it true there is talk of the HPV vaccination for boys as well?

Yes, Gardasil can be given to males as well as females. This vaccine can help prevent males from getting HPV-related cancers of the mouth/throat, penis and anus. The vaccine can also help prevent genital warts. HPV vaccination of males is also likely to benefit females by reducing the spread of HPV viruses.

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