Cervical cancer is caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is sexually transmitted and usually, there are no symptoms. Most people who have sex get the HPV virus at some time, however, it normally disappears on its own and doesn’t cause any problems. Although it doesn’t happen very often, those who have HPV over a long period of time can develop other problems, like cervical cancer.
Symptoms of cervical cancer include:
- Unusual bleeding from the vagina, for example bleeding between periods, after sex or after menopause
- Pain during sex
- Unusual vaginal discharge
You should contact your doctor right away if you experience any of these symptoms as well as if you have unusually heavy periods for three or more months.
The average age of a cervical cancer diagnosis is 49 years old, however, there are preventive measures and steps toward early detection you can take from the time you are in your 20s.
There is an HPV vaccine, which is given in three shots and it is recommended that you have the vaccine in your early teens, before becoming sexually active. However, you can still receive the vaccine up to the age of 26. It protects against four types of HPV - two that most often cause cervical cancer and two that cause genital warts.
You should have a pap test every three years beginning at age 21 or three years after becoming sexually active, whichever comes first according to the American Cancer Society. A pap test is a screening test, it does not diagnose cervical cancer but lets your doctor know if you have abnormal cells on your cervix. Abnormal cells can be an early warning sign for cancer. HPV testing is not recommended for those under the age of 30 as the virus is quite common and could result in positive results which can cause unnecessary stress and unneeded medical testing.
Once you reach your 30’s, doctors usually recommend HPV testing along with your pap test. You should talk to your doctor about how often you should receive testing, however, many doctors recommend HPV testing along with a pap test at least once every five years. If you are having a pap test only, many recommend that this is done every three years.Both tests are recommended because the HPV test looks for the virus that causes cell changes and can find changes that are not detected by the pap test. If you have two positive HPV tests, your doctor may request additional testing, even if you have a negative pap test. If you decide to have both tests completed, you don’t need to get tested as often.
Doctors recommend that regular testing continue until you are at least 65 years old. The American Cancer Society indicates that you can safely stop HPV and pap testing at age 65 if you have had regular testing for the past ten years and have not had any serious precancers for the past 20 years. You should continue testing even if you are no longer planning to have children, have had a hysterectomy but still have your cervix and are no longer having sex. This is because the HPV virus can remain dormant for years before becoming active.