Protecting yourself from cervical cancer

December 2012

Lowering your chances of getting cervical cancer

Cervical cancer was once a leading cause of death in American women. But that’s changed in the last 50 years, partly because screening tests can catch the disease in its early stages.

This type of cancer usually starts in the cells that line the cervix, the lower part of the uterus. About 12,000 cases of invasive cervical — cancer that’s spread beyond the cervix — are diagnosed every year, mostly in women between the ages of 20 and 50, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

What can you do to lower your chances of getting cervical cancer? Plenty.

Know your risks

Certain factors can increase your chances of developing cervical cancer. The good news: You can begin to make lifestyle changes that lower your risk now. Plus, keeping up with screening tests can minimize even the aspects you can’t control, like a family history of the disease.

Some of the risks include:

  • Being infected with the human papilloma virus (HPV), a group of related viruses that infect the cells on the skin, mouth, throat, anus, and genitals, and are spread through unprotected sex or even skin-to-skin contact
  • Smoking
  • Having a weakened immune system (say, from an autoimmune disorder)
  • Eating a diet low in fruits or vegetables or being overweight
  • Having chlamydia, a bacterial infection spread through sex, either currently or in the past 
  • Being a DES baby: DES (diethylstilbestrol) was a hormone used in the 1940s through 1971 to prevent miscarriage. If your mother took the drug, you have a higher risk of developing cervical or vaginal cancer
  • Having a family history of the disease

Replace bad habits with healthier ones

Now is the time to make changes that can lower your risk factors. If you’re a smoker, your doctor can suggest ways to quit that make sense for you — whether it’s a nicotine patch or gum or going cold turkey.

Need to lose weight or add more produce to your diet? A good first step is asking your doctor for advice. But don’t stop there. Sign up for HumanaVitality where you’ll get rewarded for a whole host of healthy choices — from joining an exercise program to eating more fruits and vegetables.

Schedule screening tests

Cervical cancer starts slowly. Normal cells change into pre-cancer cells before they turn cancerous. That’s why early detection is so important.

A Pap test (or smear) can discover pre-cancer cells, often called dysplasia, while the condition is easy to stop. In a Pap test, the gynecologist scrapes a few cells from your cervix, which are then sent to the lab to be checked under a microscope.

There’s also an HPV test, which is normally done on women over 30, that looks at the DNA of your cervical cells. Doctors get samples of these cells in much the same way (scraping the cervix) they do during a Pap smear.

How often should you get a Pap test? It depends on your age, your medical history, and your risk factors. The ACS recommends the following:

  • If you’re 21 to 29 years old, get a Pap test every three years.
  • If you’re 30 to 65 years old, get a combined Pap-and-HPV screening test every five years, or just get a Pap smear every three years.
  • If you’re high-risk (your mom took DES, say, or you have an autoimmune disorder), you may have to be screened more often, so talk to your doctor.
  • If you’re over 65, have had a Pap smear in the last 10 years, and nothing has been found in the past 20 years, you don’t need to be screened for cervical cancer at all. But if you’ve been diagnosed with dysplasia in the past 20 years, continue to get screened.
  • If you’ve had a hysterectomy, an operation that removes your uterus and cervix, you can stop getting a Pap test, unless you had the surgery after being diagnosed with cancer.

Not sure if your plan covers routine screenings? sign in to MyHumana to read up on your coverage.

Get the HPV vaccine - or make sure your kids do

Of the more than 100 HPV viruses, only a few cause cancer. Two separate vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, can protect you from most cancer-causing viruses. Each vaccine consists of three separate shots done over a series of six months.

Both boys and girls between 9 and 26 can get the Gardasil vaccine. Cervarix is approved for girls aged 10 to 25.

The vaccines don’t treat HPV but they do prevent it. For the vaccines to work best, girls need to get the vaccine before they start having sex — and they need to get all three shots. That’s why the ACS recommends all girls between the ages of 11 and 12 get vaccinated — or at least get the shots before 18.

If you missed that window, or your daughter did, talk to your doctor to see if still makes sense to get the shot.

One thing to keep in mind: Even if you’ve gotten your HPV vaccine, it won’t protect you against all cancer-causing viruses. So you’ll still need to get screened.

Protect yourself sexually

Making small changes, like eating more fruits and veggies, can lower your risk of cervical cancer.

Yes, getting vaccinated will cut your chances of getting HPV. But if you never got the shots, there are other ways to prevent infection.

First, try not to have sex with multiple partners — and make sure the person you’re having sex with hasn’t had multiple partners, either. When you do have intercourse, use a condom. Condoms lower your risk of catching the HPV virus — and can protect against other sexually transmitted diseases like chlamydia.

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