January is Cervical Health Awareness Month and a good time to tip our hats to an innovation in cancer prevention that’s been saving lives since the 1940s: the Pap test.
Known also by its less glamorous name, the Pap smear, this innovation allows gynecologists to find pre-cancerous cervical cells. Since they became a standard part of routine gynecological exams, Pap tests have reduced the annual number of cervical cancer deaths by nearly 70 percent — allowing cervical cancer to join the ranks of colorectal cancer as one of very few cancers that are preventable with regular screenings.
In the U.S., most women get Pap tests regularly. But when women have poor access to health care or are uninsured, we start to see a troubling pattern: Pap test rates decrease, and the risk for cervical cancer rises.
So we know that Pap tests work. What you might not know is that Pap tests are also crucial for detecting the virus that causes cervical cancer.
Cervical Cancer and HPV
We now understand that cervical cancer is a sexually-transmitted cancer. Over 90 percent of cervical cancer cases can be traced back to human papilloma virus (HPV), which is a sexually-transmitted virus.
HPV is made up of a group of similar viruses, but don’t worry, not all of these viruses are linked to cervical cancer. Some strains of HPV can cause genital warts. High-risk HPV — the viruses that can cause cervical cancer — has no symptoms and can only be detected by a Pap test. Another good reason not to skip your gynecological exam!
Some other risk factors for both HPV and cervical cancer include:
- Sexual activity at an early age
- Multiple sexual partners
- Unprotected sex
- HIV infection
Even if you contract high-risk HPV, there’s only a small chance that you will develop cervical cancer. The important thing is to follow up with your gynecologist.
How Can You Prevent Cervical Cancer?
In addition to Pap tests, an HPV vaccine is also available. At first, this vaccine was prescribed only for girls, but it is now available for boys, too. You can start between ages 11 and 14. It’s a very safe vaccine; both of my children have had it.
Adults can receive the HPV vaccine as well. It’s even worthwhile for people who have already had HPV to get the vaccine, for two reasons:
- Your immune system may have cleared a previous infection.
- The vaccine will protect you against other strains of HPV.
Not sure if you should get the HPV vaccine? Ask your doctor.
Pap Tests Are Most Likely Covered By Your Health Plan
Here’s the bottom line: Cervical cancer is preventable, and HPV isn’t something to be afraid of — just get regular Pap tests and follow up with your gynecologist’s instructions. Remember, the Pap test is a preventive care service. Most Independence Blue Cross health plans cover preventive services at no cost, but check your benefits to be sure.
Need to find a gynecologist? Use the Find a Doctor tool at ibxpress.com.