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Let's Talk: What You Need to Know About Cervical Cancer and How to Prevent It

Gynecologic oncologists from Lehigh Valley Topper Cancer Institute share critical information everyone needs to know


Cervical cancer isn’t exactly dinner table talk. But every January, Cervical Cancer Awareness Month serves as an important reminder that knowing about it – and what puts you at risk for it – could save your life. Every year, more than 11,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and the cause for most of those cases is human papillomavirus infection, or HPV.

“HPV isn’t just a single virus, but a family of more than 100 types,” says M. Bijoy Thomas, MD, gynecologic oncologist with LVPG Gynecologic Oncology“Of those 100, two types – HPV16 and HPV18 – are responsible for most cases of cervical cancer.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than nine of every 10 cervical cancer cases are caused by HPV infection. A high percentage of vaginal, vulvar, penile, anal, and head and neck cancers also are linked to HPV. 

Did You Know?

Did you know there are more than 100 types of HPV, but just two are responsible for most cervical cancer cases?

How can I prevent HPV infection?

Safeguarding yourself (and your child) against HPV infection involves two paths: vaccination and education. HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections, and many men and women are exposed to this virus by the time they are 30. It is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact as well as sexual relations. While condoms provide some protection when used properly, they do not eliminate your risk completely.

Multiple HPV vaccines are FDA-approved in the United States, and these are given as a series of two or three shots. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends vaccinating boys and girls around age 11 or 12; however, the vaccine series can be given to children as young as age 9 and up to age 26. The HPV vaccine is also FDA-approved for adults up to age 45, but individuals age 27 and older should talk with their care team to determine if they would benefit from getting it.

How can I be screened for cervical cancer and HPV?

While cervical cancer can cause symptoms, including abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge, pelvic pain and pain during sexual intercourse, these usually aren’t present until later stages when it is more difficult to treat.

The best way to detect precancerous cells or cervical cancer in its early stages is through cervical cancer screenings.

An HPV DNA test is a screening option that is done by taking a sample of cells from the surface of the cervix (using a scraper or brush) during a gynecologic exam. The sample is then sent to a lab for testing, and the results will show if you have high-risk HPV that can lead to cervical cancer.

A Pap test, also known as liquid-based cytology, is another screening option done the same way as the HPV DNA test. The results of the test will determine if your cervix contains abnormal cells (which could indicate cancer or a precancerous condition, like cervical dysplasia). This screening test is done on its own or at the same time as the HPV DNA test (known as co-testing).

In general, routine cervical cancer screening (via HPV test, Pap test or co-testing) is recommended for all individuals with a cervix between the ages of 21 and 65. To determine which type of screening is best for you (and how often you should be screened based on your age), you should talk to your primary care doctor and/or gynecologist.

"Our dream, our hope and our wish is to someday no longer have to care for women with cervical cancer because we've prevented it." – M. Bijoy Thomas, MD

What happens if I find out I have cervical cancer?

Your primary care provider or obstetrician-gynecologist (OB-GYN) will refer you to a gynecologic oncologist for further guidance. At Lehigh Valley Topper Cancer Institute, our gynecologic oncologists and multidisciplinary care teams offer leading-edge treatments for women diagnosed with cervical cancer, including minimally invasive and open surgery, radiation treatment, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.

However, preventing cervical cancer through a combination of education, HPV vaccination and screening is the foremost goal the medical community strives for. 

“While we are privileged to care for patients throughout their journey, our greatest hope is to someday be able to completely prevent cervical cancer with proper education, further research and increased awareness,” says Christine Kim, MD, gynecologic oncologist with LVPG Gynecologic Oncology. “Until that day, my colleagues and I at Lehigh Valley Topper Cancer Institute will continue providing today’s most effective therapies while researching tomorrow’s treatment breakthroughs.”

Check Up on Your Cervical Health

Is it time for your Pap test?

Make an appointment today with your primary care provider or OB-GYN on MyLVHN or by calling 888-402-LVHN (5846).

Schedule on MyLVHN

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