Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer among women globally, however, unlike most cancers, about 95% of cervical cancer is caused by a virus. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) which, when left untreated, can lead to cervical cancer. This article discusses how HPV spreads, how the virus can lead to cervical cancer, and how you can prevent both HPV and cervical cancer in yourself and your female relatives.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
HPV is the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract, infecting most sexually active men and women at some point in their life. Unlike many other sexually transmitted infections, like gonorrhea and syphilis, HPV does not usually cause symptoms, though sometimes the virus can cause painless growths or lumps around the genital area, known as genital warts.
HPV is spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus but is most commonly spread through vaginal or anal sex. A person with HPV can pass the infection to someone even when they have no signs or symptoms, meaning it is possible to contract HPV from someone who doesn’t even know they have it.
How HPV Causes Cervical Cancer
Although most (9 out of 10) HPV infections go away on their own within 2 years without health problems, there is a risk for all women that HPV infection may become chronic and lead to pre-cancerous lesions and, eventually, invasive cervical cancer.
In women with normal immune systems, it can take 15 to 20 years for cervical cancer to develop, but for those with weakened immune systems, including those with untreated HIV, that timeline is shortened to 5 to 10 years.
When cervical cancer is diagnosed early, patients have a 5-year relative survival rate of 92%. However, when the cancer has already metastasized, or spread to nearby organs, this number reduces to 59%.
Preventing HPV and Cervical Cancer
Luckily, there are many ways to prevent and be on the lookout for HPV before it has the chance to cause cervical cancer. For girls and boys 9-14 years old, it is possible to be vaccinated against HPV. The vaccine, delivered in 3 shots spread over the course of several months, protect a person from the variants of HPV that cause at least 70% of cervical cancers. These vaccines are safe and effective in preventing infections of HPV, precancerous lesions, and invasive cancer. While men and boys won’t develop cervical cancer, vaccination of boys 9-14 years old remains important, as the vaccine will prevent sexually active men from getting infected, preventing their female partners from the disease as well.
For women already sexually active, make sure to be on the lookout for HPV by receiving regular STI testing and pursuing cervical cancer screening from your OB/GYN. Screening should be done regularly on all sexually active women, even if you aren’t feeling any symptoms. By completing regular screening, you’re ensuring that the possibility of cancer can be avoided and that any cancer, if found, will have a high potential for a cure.