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Can cervical cancer be prevented?

Prevention starts with regular screenings and early detection

More than 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. It is the second most-common type of cancer for women worldwide, but it is also one of the most preventable.  Prevention starts with regular pap tests and pelvic exams.

There is often confusion about the difference between pap tests and pelvic exams. A pelvic exam is the physical examination of the internal and external female pelvic organs. A pap test is a cervical cancer screening that may be performed during a pelvic exam, which looks for changes in the cells of the cervix. Early detection helps make sure those changes don’t become cancer. 

What can cause those changes? The human papilloma virus (HPV) is a common sexually transmitted infection that is found in about 99 percent of cervical cancers. While 80 out of 100 women will contract some form of HPV in their lifetime, 90 percent of those HPV infections will resolve within about two years. Women with “persistent infections,” or HPV infections that don’t clear up, are at a higher risk of developing cervical abnormalities. Other factors that contribute to the risk of cervical cancer are smoking, other sexually transmitted diseases and a weakened immune system. Women under the age of 27 should get the HPV vaccine.

Most women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer have never had a pap test. Health care providers recommend getting a pap test every three years starting at the age 21. Having an abnormal pap test doesn’t mean you have cancer. If abnormal cells are detected, your provider may recommend additional tests.

It’s still important to have an annual gynecological exam.

Joanne Brown is a doctor of nursing practice and an advance practice registered nurse (APRN) at University Health Service at the University of Kentucky.

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