Exactly what is HPV? How often do I need a pap smear? What does a pap smear test for? What are the risk factors for cervical cancer?
After many conversations with women over the years, I’ve learned that vaginal health is something some of us know little about. We may not know all the parts and their functions, including the cervix which is located at the lower part of the uterus.
One brilliant analogy is that of a hallway and door. Picture the vagina as a hallway. At the end of the hallway is a door. The cervix is the door (Very Well Family, 2020), and includes the endocervix (the part of the cervix leading to the uterus) and the ectocervix (the outer part of the cervix that can be seen during vaginal exam).
What does the Cervix Do?
- Protects the uterus by limiting access to foreign substances
- Produces cervical mucus to clean the vagina
- Keeps the fetus in uterus
Do I need a Pap Smear and HPV Test?
Every 2-3 years, I make an appointment with my gynecologist for a pap smear. Do I like getting pap smears? Absolutely not. Getting pap smears is what I do to learn about my vaginal health.
Many of us are used to the procedure. It’s something I’ve mastered since getting my first pap smear when I was 21. I scoot up to the edge of the exam table as the nurse is handing my doctor the speculum, place my feet onto the stirrups, lie back, take a deep breath, and look up at the ceiling as my doctor carries out the exam.
A pap smear/pap test is used to detect vaginal abnormalities. It’s important to note that a pap test is different from a human papillomavirus (HPV) test. The pap test is used to detect abnormal cells and an HPV test is used to detect HPV, a virus which increases a woman’s risk of developing cervical cancer. Most forms of cervical cancer are caused by HPV. Although both tests are different, a pap test sample can be used to test for HPV.
Once the leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States, the rate of cervical cancer, and cervical cancer deaths, have drastically decreased (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020).
This year, roughly 13,500 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer, and over 4,000 may die from the disease. Cervical cancer is mostly diagnosed in women ages 35 to 44. However, older adult women are also at risk. Twenty percent of cervical cancer is detected in women over 65 years of age (American Cancer Society, 2020).
What are the risk factors?
- HPV Infection
- Sexual history (increases exposure to HPV)
- Being sexually active at a young age
- Having multiple partners
- A weakened immune system
- Chlamydia infection
- Long-term use of birth control
- Economic status
- A diet low in fruits and vegetables
- Family history
Source: American Cancer Society, 2020.
Smoking increases the risk of cancer development. Smoking cessation can reduce a person’s risk of developing any type of cancer.
Having multiple sexual partners can put someone at risk of acquiring HPV. Women with multiple sexual partners are at risk of developing cervical cancer especially if they have sex with high-risk partners.
HPV vaccines prevent certain types of HPV, which can cause cancer. Children and young adults can get vaccinated, but it is not recommended for someone older than 26.
Although a condom may provide some protection, it may not prevent HPV.
Early detection is key. Pap smears and HPV tests are forms of early detection and can save lives. Make sure you speak with your healthcare provider about your cervical cancer risks and get tested.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2020. Cervical Cancer Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/statistics/index.htm
American Cancer Society. 2020. Key Statistics for Cervical Cancer. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cervical-cancer/about/key-statistics.html