'It doesn’t have to be like this': Cervical cancer is preventable

A doctor points at an anatomical model of the female reproductive system.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most commonly sexually transmitted infection. It is also the cause of most cervical cancers in women.  

Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women in the United States. Today, HPV vaccines and screenings have made it one of the most preventable cancers. Still, over 14,000 American women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, and it remains the fourth most common cancer in women worldwide. 

This Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, we sat down with Jenna Emerson, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist, to learn more about cervical cancer screening and prevention. 

“Cervical cancer is a unique disease in the fact that we have a long time – somewhere between 15 to 30 years – to go from HPV infection to becoming an invasive cancer,” says Dr. Emerson. “In the US, most women who are diagnosed at an advanced stage have had a lifelong series of events keeping them from access to preventative care.” 

Once invasive, the disease spreads quickly and can be difficult to treat. Preventing HPV infection and regular screenings are our best tools to bring an end to cervical cancer. 

HPV vaccination prevents infection

The first step to preventing cervical cancer is to stop HPV infection. The best way to do that is by getting vaccinated. 

“The HPV vaccine is highly effective,” says Dr. Emerson. “Widespread HPV vaccination has the potential to reduce cervical cancer incidence around the world by as much as 90%.” 

HPV vaccination: 

  • Is most effective when given to boys and girls around 11-12 years old 
  • Is recommended for adults up to the age of 26 
  • Is FDA approved for all adults up to the age of 45 
  • Can be beneficial for adults over the age of 26, depending on their health history 

Most HPV vaccine studies have focused on cervical cancer prevention. However, HPV can also cause vulvar cancer, anal cancer, penis cancer and some throat cancers. Cervical cancer is the only HPV-related cancer that can be detected early through routine screenings. Vaccination can help prevent these other HPV-related cancers. 

Pap smears detect precancerous changes early

Dr. Emerson was inspired to become a gynecologic oncologist during her time as a volunteer medical worker in Guatemala. While there, she saw many young women come in for screenings who ended up having advanced cervical cancer. 

“The doctors said, ‘It doesn’t have to be this way,’” says Emerson. Their team established a screening program. More than a decade later, she returned to Guatemala and saw that not only had many of her patients had screenings within the past few years, but very few cancers were being seen thanks to years of successful prevention efforts.  

A simple test called a Pap smear is what doctors use to screen for cervical cancer. They swab cells from the cervix, look at them under a microscope and test for the HPV virus. Abnormal cells can indicate HPV infection, precancerous changes or cervical cancer.  

Precancerous management works

 “A lot of what I do is cancer prevention,” says Dr. Emerson, “So many women with precancerous changes come see me to manage these changes over time.”  

When precancerous changes are detected during a Pap smear, it gives patients and their doctors the chance to step in. 

“I always want people to know: don’t be afraid of an abnormal test result,” she adds. “It’s an opportunity to prevent cervical cancer.”