Commentary: HPV vaccine can help prevent cervical cancer
There aren’t many cancers that are preventable. Cervical cancer is one of them.
In fact, I look forward to the day this cancer will be a rare phenomenon in the United States.
Cervical cancer is a condition that can affect any woman, a message we’ve heard recently from Erin Andrews, sportscaster for Fox NFL, who was diagnosed last year. It is a slowly evolving cancer that starts in the cells lining the cervix. They begin as precancerous cells, which then turn into cancer. This change from precancerous to cancerous cells can take anywhere from less than a year to several years.
There are symptoms to watch for. Patients in the early stages of cervical cancer may experience abnormal vaginal bleeding, discharge or pelvic pain. In more advanced cases, there can be pain in the abdomen, swelling in one or both legs, heavy vaginal bleeding, or obstruction in normal bladder function or bowel movements.
The great news is that changes in the cells lining the cervix can be detected by regular Pap tests conducted every year, or at least every other year. Andrews’ cancer was discovered in just this way — through a routine checkup.
If a Pap test finds abnormal cells, a colposcopy is done, which magnifies the appearance of the cervix, allowing any abnormality to be biopsied for precancerous or cancerous cells. Precancerous tissue that’s growing on the cervix can be shaved off, removing the cells before they become cancerous.
If the cells have progressed, early stage cancer can be treated with a radical hysterectomy, performed with a non-invasive surgery for rapid recovery. More advanced stages of cervical cancer (Stage 3 or higher) are treated with radiation and chemotherapy.
The message is clear: early detection means simpler treatment. But even better than treatment is prevention.
Fully 99% of cervical cancer is caused by “HPV,” short for human papillomavirus. The HPV vaccine, available for both females and males ages 9 to 26, is given as a series of three shots over a period of six months.
The HPV vaccine is effective in preventing HPV, which can cause not only cervical cancer but also vaginal, penile and anal cancer. One of the rising cancers found to be caused by HPV are head-and-neck cancers, for which the vaccine is also effective.
Thanks to the widely available Pap test, and the growing use of the HPV vaccine, cervical cancer in the U.S. has declined over the past 30 years. I’m sad to say that there are still more than 10,000 cases of cervical cancer and 4,000 cervical cancer deaths in the U.S. every year.
These unnecessary deaths from an entirely preventable cancer strengthen my resolve to spread the word to women and men, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers: regular screenings and HPV vaccines save lives.
Don’t wait. If you are a woman older than 21, make your appointment for a Pap test. If there are children or youth in your life who have not yet received the HPV vaccine, don’t wait. Help me spread the word: let’s make cervical cancer a thing of the past.
Dr. ALBERTO MENDIVIL practices gynecologic oncology at Hoag Hospital.