Understanding the Connection Between HPV and Cervical Cancer

5 min read

Understanding the Connection Between HPV and Cervical Cancer

Did you know that cervical cancer can be prevented? Understanding the primary cause – the human papillomavirus (HPV) – can help reduce your chances of developing this disease.

What Causes Cervical Cancer? 

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly everyone will have an HPV infection at some point in their lives. It’s also the most common cause of cervical cancer and several other types of cancer.  

There are over 200 variations of the HPV virus, with 30 related to sexual transmission. HPV can be either high-risk or low-risk. Most HPV is low-risk and goes away by itself, never developing into cancer. However, high-risk HPV may cause abnormal cervical cells or cancer. If you test positive for HPV, your doctor will look at the specific version of the virus to see if it’s high-risk or low-risk. They will especially note if you have HPV type 16 or 18. These infections are most likely to result in cervical cancer.

Are There Symptoms of Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer doesn't usually show any signs or symptoms during its early stages. That’s why screening is so critical. 

When symptoms do appear, they include unusual vaginal discharge, abnormal vaginal bleeding, and pain during intercourse. Talk to your gynecologist if you experience any of these symptoms to determine if further testing should be done. 

Related blog: Signs and Symptoms of Gynecologic Cancer You Shouldn’t Ignore

Screening to Detect Cervical Cancer 

Thankfully, most women can avoid developing cervical cancer with regular cervical cancer screening. Routine screening can identify precancerous cervical cells before they develop into cancer when treatment is most effective. The Pap test (sometimes called a Pap smear or cervical smear) is the test used to determine if precancerous or cancerous cells are growing on the cervix. 

During the Pap test, your gynecologist will collect a sample of cervical cells using a small brush to lift the cells from the cervix. These will be sent to a lab for examination under a microscope. The pathologist who reviews the sample will look for any abnormal cell growth.

Some women may show signs of precancerous cells, called dysplasia, which can be treated before they become cancer. 

Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines

Women can use the American Cancer Society's (ACS) guidelines to determine when to begin cervical cancer screenings, which include a pap test and sometimes an HPV test. According to the ACS, women should start screening at the age of 25 regardless of whether they received the HPV vaccine. The current ACS recommendations for cervical cancer screening are: 

  • Women age 25 to 65 should have a primary HPV test every 5 years. If primary HPV testing is not available, screening may be done with
    • a co-test that combines an HPV test with a Papanicolaou (Pap) test every 5 years, or 
    • a Pap test alone every 3 years. 
  • Women age 65 and older who have undergone regular screening in the previous 10 years and have not had any serious pre-cancers in the last 25 years no longer need screening. 
  • Women who have had a complete hysterectomy do not require screening unless the surgery was performed to treat cervical pre-cancer or cancer.

While screening is important for all women, those of Hispanic descent have higher rates of cervical cancer compared to other racial or ethnic groups. It’s especially important for this group of women to start their screenings on time and continue them as recommended by their doctors.

Rest assured that most insurance providers cover cervical screenings as part of preventative care.

Tips for Reducing Your Risk of Cervical Cancer 

Avoiding an HPV infection is key to preventing cervical cancer. You can reduce your risk of contracting HPV in several ways. 

Ensure Condom Use During Sex

Using condoms consistently and correctly during sex can reduce your risk of HPV infection by reducing some skin-to-skin contact. However, a condom does not offer full protection since there is still intimate contact that can cause HPV to spread. 

Reduce Your Number of Sexual Partners 

While no one is suggesting abstinence, you will lower your risk of developing cervical cancer as well as several other types of cancer related to HPV if you limit the number of sexual partners. This reduces the risk of exposure to HPV. You should also choose a sexual partner who has a limited number of previous partners. The fewer partners either of you have had, the lower the risk of contracting or spreading HPV. 

In addition, you should get tested for HPV and other STIs regularly. Talk with your gynecologist about what is appropriate for you.

Consider Taking the HPV Vaccine to Prevent Cervical Cancer

Three vaccines have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent HPV infection: Gardasil®, Gardasil® 9, and Cervarix. These vaccines are designed to protect against new HPV infections. By reducing the likelihood of an HPV infection, you can reduce the risk of cervical cancer, as well as oral and throat cancer. However, even if you receive the vaccine, you should still follow the Pap test screening guidelines mentioned above. 

The HPV vaccine is recommended for both males and females starting at ages 11 to 12. Receiving the vaccine before you’re 26 provides the best protection. The vaccine could be less effective if you’re older since you may have already come into contact with HPV. Talk to your doctor to see how many doses are best for you. 

What Happens if Precancerous or Cancer Cells Are Found?

If a Pap smear reveals there are abnormal cells on your cervix, your gynecologist may perform a colposcopy to investigate further. During this procedure, your doctor will remove more cells for a biopsy. 

If the cells show signs of cancer, your gynecologist may use cryosurgery or laser ablation to kill the cells. Cryosurgery is a procedure that involves using a very cold probe to freeze the cells and kill them. Most women have no long-term side effects from cryosurgery, and it is effective at preventing cancer from developing. 

An ablation uses lasers or another heat source to burn the precancerous cells off the cervix. This procedure is more invasive than cryosurgery and can cause more discomfort. 

You will need a follow-up visit to ensure the procedure was effective in destroying any precancerous cells. You should also continue with cervical cancer screening as recommended by your gynecologist in the future. 

If the biopsy from the Pap smear shows there are cancerous cells, you will likely need to meet with a gynecologic oncologist, who will evaluate how much the cancer has spread inside and outside of the cervix. Based on that information, your cancer care team will create a treatment plan that could include surgery and radiation, as well as chemotherapy, if necessary.

The Latest Cervical Cancer Treatments are Available in the Albany, New York Region

You can take steps to protect yourself from HPV and cervical cancer. The best way to do this is to stay informed and make lifestyle choices that reduce your risk. Early detection is key, as acting quickly can help successfully prevent cervical cancer from fully developing. 

If you or a loved one has received a diagnosis of cervical cancer, the gynecologic oncologists at New York Oncology Hematology are here to help. They will create a personalized treatment plan for you. We have locations throughout Albany, Troy, Amsterdam, Clifton Park, and Hudson request an appointment at a location that is convenient for you to receive treatment close to home in the Capital District.