Cervical Cancer: A Shot of Prevention

Regular Pap tests and the HPV vaccine - do you really need both?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 28, 2010

January is Cervical Cancer Health Awareness Month -- wouldn't now be a great time to make that appointment for a Pap test?

Oh, don't be that way! Think of a Pap test (also called a Pap smear) as freedom from worry. It's something you can do right now to keep your body free of cervical cancer. Who doesn't want that?

Preventing Cervical Cancer

An estimated 12,200 cases of invasive cervical cancer are expected to be diagnosed in 2010. These rates have decreased over the past several decades in white women and African-American women. An estimated 4,200 cervical cancer deaths are expected in 2010. Cancer of the cervix (the lowest part of your uterus, at the top of the vagina) is preventable and curable -- if caught early.

And a Pap test -- where a few cells are collected from the cervix and then examined under a microscope -- is key to catching cervical cancers in their precancerous and earliest stages. Since the 1950s, the rates of death from cervical cancer has declined by 74%. The reason for the decline is mostly due to Pap test screening.

The best time to start getting Pap smears is by the time you're 21, and it should be done every two years. Women aged 30 and older that have had three consecutively normal tests can start screening once every three years. Talk to your doctor to know for sure.

If you are 30 or older, you also can be tested for the cancer-causing types of HPV at the same time you have your Pap test.

Taking a Shot at Cervical Cancer

Some women can take the power of cervical cancer prevention even further, by getting immunized with the HPV vaccine.

HPVs (human papillomavirus), of which there are more than 100 types, are the most common sexually transmitted infections in the U.S. The vaccine protects women against four HPV types that cause 70% of all cervical cancers.

The HPV vaccine is most effective before a person is infected with an HPV, which is why the vaccine has been recommended for girls as young as nine. It's also approved for women up to the age of 26, and tests are under way to see if it's effective for women over that age. The vaccine cannot protect against established infection, nor does it protect against all types of HPV.

Already got immunized with the HPV vaccine? Great! Think you don't need a Pap test anymore? Wrong!

Remember, the vaccine protects against four HPV types, which leaves more than 96 HPV viruses -- some of which cause the remaining 30% of cervical cancers.

You know the solution: Get regular Pap tests. The test takes only a few minutes, and after a normal test you can forge ahead, secure in the knowledge that you have taken the power of prevention into your own hands.

Show Sources

SOURCES: CDC: "HPV Vaccine Questions and Answers." WebMD Medical Reference: "Pap Smear Test," "Understanding Cervical Cancer -- the Basics." National Cancer Institute: "Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccines: Questions and Answers." American Academy of Family Physicians: "Pap Smears: What They Are and What the Results Mean," "Human Papillomavirus (HPV)."

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