HPV And Cervical Cancer
Carriers of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) are often very concerned about the links between HPV and certain cancers in men and women. In men these include penile and anal cancer, while in women they include cancer of the cervix, vagina and vulva. This year, an estimated half a million women world-wide will be diagnosed with cervical cancer, and the vast majority of these women will have had a prior infection with a certain strain of HPV. While this is a very scary statistic, it's important to remember that only some types of HPV are linked to cervical cancer and that most HPV sufferers will not develop the disease. If you or your sexual partner is a HPV carrier, you should be well informed of the risks and steps you can take to stop cervical cancer in its tracks at an early stage. Read on for more information.
What Is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer is the name given to cancer that occurs in the lower part or entrance to the womb, often referred to as the neck of the womb. It starts when these cervix cells mutate abnormally to form something called cervical intra-epithelial neoplasia (CIN), also known as pre-cancerous cells. If left untreated, these abnormal cells may go on to develop into full-blown cervical cancer. This type of cancer occurs frequently in women under the age of 35 and may take years to develop. Estimates from the United States expected that 11 million U.S. women would be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2007, and that 4 million of these women would eventually die from the disease. The good news is that by getting regular Pap tests, also called cervical screening or cervical smear tests, you can do a lot to reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer. These tests help detect CIN at a very early stage, allowing for effective treatment.
And The Link To HPV?
A staggering 95% of all cases of cervical cancer occur in women who have previously been infected with certain strains of HPV. But before you sink into despair, remember there are over 100 known strains of HPV and only certain types are linked to cancer. The HPV strains which cause genital or vaginal warts are numbers 6 and 11. These strains are not usually associated with cancer growth. Strains 16, 18, 31, 33 and 35, however, are thought to be a major cause of the type of abnormal changes in cervix cells which can lead to cancer. These are known as the high cancer-risk strains. They are often harder to detect because they do not usually cause warts to grow. Although the vast majority of cervical cancers are linked to HPV, this not the same thing as saying that nearly all female HPV carriers will develop cervical cancer. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Only a small percentage of those women carrying the high-cancer risk HPV strains will develop cervical cancer, even if they develop pre-cancerous cells which are then left untreated. As a general rule, the more severe the abnormal cell growth in the cervix, the higher the risk of developing cancer. Having said all that, any woman who takes her health seriously will attend regular Pap tests, all the more so if she has HPV.
HPV is by no means the sole cause of cervical cancer. Other risk factors include smoking, taking the birth control pill for more than 10 years, as well as having many children and being pregnant at an early age (under the age of 17). Bear in mind that even these factors only increase the risk of cervical cancer by a very slight amount.
Symptoms of cervical cancer often don't appear until the cancer has reached an advanced stage, making it even more important for you to take those Pap tests. If they do appear, symptoms include:
- Abnormal bleeding (between periods or after sex).
- Bleeding in post-menopausal women.
- A smelly vaginal discharge.
- Discomfort or pain during sex.
Many women find such symptoms embarrassing and therefore put off going to the doctor or sexual health clinic. They may also fear the stigma attached to having a sexually transmitted infection (STI). But with HPV, avoiding the doctor can be a fatal mistake. Remember that not all cervical cancers are linked to HPV and not all women who have HPV have had a lot of sexual partners. Even if you have, medical professionals are not there to judge you, they are there to help you protect yourself - and possibly even save your life.