Apart from making good decisions to exercise and eat healthfully, very few cancers are preventable. In honor of Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month, I'd like to share information about one type that can be avoided. It’s cervical cancer, and many cases can be prevented with a vaccine.
In the past, cervical cancer was one of the most common cause of cancer deaths for women in the United States. With the introduction of the Pap test in the 1940s, the number declined significantly. A vaccine, introduced in 2006, is poised to generate another significant drop in cervical cancer, which still claims 4,000 lives a year.
The vaccine fights human papillomavirus, known as HPV. HPV is a group of more than 100 common viruses, at least 14 of which are known to cause cancer, like cervical cancer. Two types, in particular, cause 70 percent of cervical cancers and pre-cancerous cervical lesions.
The HPV vaccine is given by a shot in two doses over 6 to 12 months. It has been found to be extremely effective at preventing cancer and the spread of HPV by both males and females. In fact, one study found that girls ages 14 – 19 were 50 percent less likely to get the top four types of HPV in the first 4 years that the vaccine was available.
As for who should get the vaccine, the American Cancer Society recommends routine HPV vaccination for girls and boys starting at age 11 or 12. The vaccination series can be started as early as age 9. Doing so dramatically reduces the risk of getting certain kinds of cancer later in life.
Just recently, the Centers for Disease Control recommended "catch up" vaccines for everyone up to the age of 26, if they were not vaccinated before or did not receive both shots in the series.
Despite the vaccine being relatively new, there have been no significant side effects related to it. The most common, mild side effects include headache, fever, nausea, and dizziness. And as with any shot, sometimes pain and redness can occur at the injection site.
It's important to recognize that getting the HPV vaccine does not mean women no longer need to get routine Pap smears. The vaccine does not prevent all types of HPV-related cancers; however, because it prevents certain kinds, it may reduce the need for subsequent screenings and care including biopsies and other invasive procedures.
Dr. Malcolm Paine is an OB/GYN at SVMC OB/GYN.