2019 Cervical Cancer
Prevention Is Key
Cervical cancer is unique in that nearly all types of this gynecologic cancer can be prevented. Vaccination methods have evolved so that they are now nearly 100 percent effective in preventing cervical cancer. Countries such as Australia are on track to eliminating nearly all incidences of cervical cancer in women. So why hasn’t this cancer yet been eradicated in the U.S.?
Nearly 100% of cervical cancer cases are preventable
Approximately 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. Nearly all of these cases are caused by a persistent infection from the human papillomavirus (HPV) virus. According to the CDC, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. HPV-related infections can also lead to the development of vaginal, vulvar, penile, anal, and head and neck cancers.
Though most of us are exposed to the HPV virus at some point in our lives, it usually clears with the help of a healthy immune system. But for some women with risk factors such as smoking or a suppressed immune system, these HPV-related infections can persist and develop into cervical cancer.
The HPV vaccine is extremely effective at preventing HPV infection
If all males and females in the U.S. were vaccinated against HPV infection at age 11 or 12, before they became sexually active, this would help eliminate cervical cancer and save thousands of lives each year. But vaccination rates in the U.S. have not kept pace with other developed countries.
In Australia, for example, a government-funded HPV vaccination program was rolled out in 2007. By 2016, 79 percent of girls and 73 percent of boys aged 15 had received the full course of this vaccine. Australia is on pace to eliminating cervical cancer as a public health problem by 2028.
Though vaccination rates in the U.S. lag behind other countries such as Australia, advances are still being made. For example, the most recent version of the HPV vaccine, a nonavalent vaccine (defined by the National Cancer Institute), was approved by the FDA in 2017. It is even more effective than its predecessor and is extremely protective against the development of persistent HPV infection.
This latest vaccine is effective in preventing nearly all cervical dysplasias, which appear to be the precursors for the vast majority of cervical cancers. The vaccine is administered in either a two- or three-shot series, depending on age, and helps protect against cervical and other cancers from developing. The optimal age for boys and girls to receive this vaccine is 11-12 years, before any sexual activity, though it can be administered as early as age 9.
Until recently, the HPV vaccine was approved for use only up to age 26. However, in 2018 the FDA approved its use for women and men aged 27-45. There are nine different strains of the HPV virus. Therefore, even if you or a loved one has been exposed to one or more of the HPV virus strains, the vaccine could protect against from any future exposure to other strains.
Pap and HPV Tests
Cervical cancer is somewhat distinctive among gynecologic cancers in that there are very effective screening methods available. If you are already sexually active and have not received the HPV vaccine, there are still ways you can get screened and detect cervical cancer at an early stage and improve your outcomes.
Advanced screening methods include regular Pap tests and HPV tests for women ages 21-65. Some women only need Pap and HPV testing once every five years. But everyone is different, and testing guidelines continue to evolve. Discuss the best screening methods and intervals with your doctor.
Cervical screening is recommended for all women aged 21-65
If you or someone you know is seeking diagnosis for cervical cancer-related symptoms, or has already received a diagnosis of cervical cancer, surgery is one treatment option. Advances are always being made in surgical techniques, with researchers currently looking for new ways to treat this cancer surgically while preserving a woman’s fertility.
A 2018 study sponsored by the National Cancer Institute is investigating a new surgical method that involves excising a portion of the cervix, thereby eliminating the need for hysterectomy. The results from this study should be available within the next few years.
Like most types of cancer, cervical cancer can, unfortunately, recur. But breakthroughs are being made in the treatment of gynecologic cancers, including cervical.
Immunotherapies are one of the most promising treatments to emerge for gynecologic cancer
The largest discovery in the treatment of cervical cancer from a research standpoint is pembrolizumab, a therapy approved by the FDA in 2018. Pembrolizumab treats certain types of cervical cancer that have progressed after a course of chemotherapy. Referred to as an immunotherapy, this drug allows the immune system to destroy certain cancer cells.
Immunotherapies are one of the most promising treatments to emerge for gynecologic cancer. These treatments also are showing benefits in prolonged disease control, or longer survival rates.
Pembrolizumab’s effectiveness at treating cervical cancer was discovered in a clinical trial. It is vital that women participate in clinical trials to help discover better ways to diagnose and treat gynecologic cancers. Learn more about clinical trials.
Deaths related to cervical cancer are decreasing. This is likely due to improved screening methods and increased use of Pap and HPV tests, not increased vaccination rates. Along with organizations such as the National HPV Vaccination Roundtable, the Foundation for Women’s Cancer promotes the increase of HPV vaccination rates at state and national levels, with a focus on boys and girls ages 11-12 in the U.S.
2019 State of Gynecologic Cancers
Take a look at recent, significant advances made in the prevention, detection and treatment of gynecologic cancers.
About 5,170 new cases of vaginal cancer are diagnosed each year in the U.S., making it one of the rarest of gynecological cancers.
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