Girl's Guide to Preventing, Avoiding, Treating, and Even Beating Cancer
CERVICAL CANCER: An STD in Disguise
Cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that causes genital warts. "The strategies you use to avoid gonorrhea and syphilis, like barrier contraceptives, help prevent cervical cancer, too," says Dr. Michael L. Berman, director of the gynecologic oncology fellowship program at UC Irvine School of Medicine. While almost every case of cervical cancer is caused by HPV, not all HPV causes cancer — only certain strains. A Pap smear is your best chance of catching the disease, since symptoms, like vaginal bleeding, don't appear until later. (In late October, the American Cancer Society released revised Pap smear guidelines recommending that most women 21 to 65 get the test every three years, as opposed to annually.) The cancer is treated with surgery or a combination of radiation and chemo, and, tackled early, has a 93 percent survival rate, so don't even think about missing a scheduled Pap. That rate drops to 15 percent in the advanced stages.
YOUR PERSONAL PREVENTION PLAN
-Avoid cigarettes. The by-products of the smoke enter cervical mucus through your blood and kill antibodies, weakening your immune system and increasing the risk of lesions.
-If you and your partner are under 27 and haven't gotten the Gardasil vaccine, get it now—it's covered by most insurance plans and protects women against 75 percent of cervical cancers, and men against genital warts. Older than 27? Skip it. You'd have to pay the $360 cost yourself, and it might not be effective. Sexually active women at this age have likely already been exposed to HPV.
-Use condoms. They decrease your risk of contracting HPV (although it can still be present on skin around the genitals).
REASON FOR HOPE
Transgene, a French biopharmaceutical company, is studying vaccinations that could eliminate a wider range of HPV infections; the Gardasil vaccine stops only the four strains that cause most cervical cancers and genital warts. The new vaccine is expected to hit the market by 2018.
60%: The proportion of women with cervical cancer who are under 50. –AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY
An analysis of U.S. oral cancer data showed that oral HPV infections, linked to oral sex, are a risk factor for throat and mouth cancers. –AMERICAN DENTAL ASSOCIATION
"A family history of cervical cancer doesn't put you at increased risk; it's not an inherited disease." –DR. JOHN P. CURTIN, PRESIDENT OF THE SOCIETY OF GYNECOLOGIC ONCOLOGY
"Cancer is often described as the defining plague of our generation." –THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES