You may have heard about recent advances in treating cervical cancer, treatments that have cut the mortality rate by 50 percent over the last 30 years. Those advances largely came after researchers learned that 99 percent of cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). That may get you thinking, “If I find out I have HPV, does that mean I’m going to get cervical cancer?”
The short answer: No, HPV does not always lead to cervical cancer.
Here’s what you should know about HPV and cancer:
HPV is very common, and most cases never lead to cancer
HPV spreads easily through sexual contact. An estimated 80 million Americans have HPV, and around 70 percent of sexually-active women and men will encounter HPV at some point in their lives. Most people who have it never develop any symptoms. It can lie dormant for years, but your body’s immune system can naturally fight off between 80 and 90 percent of HPV infections.
How HPV causes cervical cancer
If you have an HPV infection that lingers for years, it can cause cervical cells to become cancerous. But it can take between 10 and 30 years for that to happen; during that time pre-cancerous cells develop that indicate that you have an HPV infection that could become cervical cancer. If your regular screening detects these cells, your doctor can plan a course of treatment to prevent them from becoming cancerous.
Why screening makes a difference
Testing and early treatment have made cervical cancer the easiest gynecologic cancer to prevent. If you have developed any precancerous cells, you’ll want to find out as soon as possible. All women should begin getting regular Pap tests at age 21. A Pap test can be performed by your doctor and takes 10 to 20 minutes. The doctor will use a swab to take a sample of cells from your cervix and then send them to a lab for review.
If your tests come back negative (no unusual cells), you won’t need another Pap test for three to five years, depending on your age and your doctor’s recommendation. If the tests come back positive, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have precancerous cells. A positive test can be caused by minor cell changes or inflammation that may clear up on its own, so your doctor may want to schedule another Pap test to see if those abnormal cells are still there. If they are, you and your doctor can discuss a treatment plan to prevent these cells from developing further.
Testing positive for HPV shouldn’t cause panic. Most people have it at some point, and the body can usually fight it off. But since HPV can eventually lead to cervical cancer, don’t ignore it. Makee sure you’re getting your regular Pap tests so you can receive proper treatment long before the word “cancer” ever enters the discussion.