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HPV increases cancer risk; Pap tests urged

by Erica Richards, R.N.
Women & Infant Services
At least half of all sexually active people will develop human papillomavirus (HPV) at some time in their lives, and exposure to HPV increases the risk for women to develop cervical cancer, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus and it  is the organ in which fetuses grow. The cervix leads from the uterus to the vagina or birth canal.
Cancer of the cervix is an abnormal growth of cells starting in the cervix. About 70 percent of all cervical cancers are caused by genital HPV, which is spread through sexual contact. Typically, the body is able to fight the infection causing no signs or symptoms, and it goes away on its own. Persistent HPV infection, however, can lead to cervical cancer.
In 2004, 11,892 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer, and of those, 3,850 died of the disease, according to national cancer statistics.
Meanwhile, cervical cancer is the simplest cancer for females to prevent with regular screening tests and follow-up care ( Cervical cancer also is highly curable when found and treated early.
All women who have ever participated in sexual intercourse are at risk for cervical cancer, although it occurs most often in women 30 years and older.
Women are at increased risk of acquiring HPV if: they began having sexual intercourse at an early age; have had multiple sexual partners, or if their partner has had multiple sexual partners; and if they use tobacco products.
Though many different types of HPV exist, only types 16 and 18 currently are known to cause cervical cancer, according to the CDC.
Women who have cervical cancer typically do not experience signs or symptoms, although advanced cervical cancer may cause abnormal bleeding or discharge from the vagina, and pelvic pain or pain during intercourse. Treatment for cervical cancer depends on the stage of the disease, size of the tumor, age of the woman and the patient’s desire to have children. All treatment options should be discussed with a physician before making any decisions regarding care.
A Pap smear is the test used to detect changes in cervical cells. Six out of 10 cervical cancers occur in women who have never received a Pap test or in women who have not been tested in the past five years, according to CDC. It is recommended that women begin Pap tests by age 21 or within three years of initiating sexual activity.
The Pap test is a relatively simple procedure done by an advanced practice nurse or physician in which cells are gently scraped from the cervix and examined under a microscope to detect cancer or any changes that may lead to cancer. Women are notified of the results of the Pap test typically via mail or phone calls within two weeks after the test. Recommendations for treatment are made if an abnormality is noted, depending on the severity.
Some women will require repeat Pap smears every six months, while others will need additional procedures. An abnormal Pap smear does not necessarily indicate cervical cancer, but identifies cervical cell changes.
Currently the only medical prevention method for cervical cancer is the HPV vaccine. The vaccine is recommended for girls between 9 and 26 years of age. Although vaccines are available, they do not replace the Pap test.
Continuing to have regular Pap smears, whether vaccinated or not, is important. Obtaining regular Pap smears, abstaining from tobacco products, using condoms, and limiting the number of sexual encounters and partners also can greatly decrease a woman’s risk of getting HPV and cervical cancer.
More information on Pap tests, HPV and cervical cancer can be found at
Free Pap tests are available for low income women through the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. To learn more call (800) 232-4636, or visit

Editor's note: The preceding column was brought to you on behalf of Health 1st. Striving to bring various topics and representing numerous employee wellness organizations and committees on campus, this weekly column seeks to provide MUSC, MUHA and UMA employees with current and helpful information concerning all aspects of health.

Friday, Feb. 8, 2008
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