The problem is likely to worsen because a new study shows that the number of women who failed to get timely screens for cervical cancer doubled between 2005 and 2019. The study found that nearly 1 in 3 women ages 21 to 29 were overdue for screening. More than 1 in 5 women ages 30 to 65 were overdue.
The problem is particularly troublesome with specific groups:
41.7% of all uninsured women were overdue for screening
32% of women who identify as LGBTQ+ were overdue
31.4% of Asian women were overdue
26.2% of rural women were overdue
Screening tests offer the best chance to find cervical cancer early when treatment is most likely to succeed. Screening can also help to prevent most cervical cancers by finding abnormal cervical cell changes, so that they can be treated before they can become cancerous.
The most common cause of cervical cancer is an HPV (human papillomavirus) infection. To protect yourself from HPV, you need to do two things:
Get tested or screened
Get an HPV vaccination to protect you from the infection
A cervical screening test is similar to a Pap smear test. In both, a doctor or nurse takes sample cells from the cervix. The Pap smear test looks for abnormal cells, while the cervical screening looks for HPV infection. The new test for HPV can identify women at risk of cervical cancer earlier than the Pap test. Cells are sent to a lab for analysis. Results are typically available in two weeks.
Even if a screening finds you are infected with a strain of HPV, you should get vaccinated because the HPV vaccine can protect you from other strains that you do not have.
January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, designated by Congress to encourage women to be more attentive to their health. It is also a good time to consider the seriousness of HPV, which poses a serious health risk beyond cervical cancer – and threatens both women and men. HPV is responsible for:
75% of vaginal cancers
70% of vulvar cancers
70% of oropharyngeal cancers, which typically develop in the tonsils or back of the tongue
Over 90% of anal cancers
Over 60% of penile cancers
In all, the CDC says HPV leads to more than 46,000 cancer cases a year – about 56% of them among women, 44% among men. HPV also is responsible for the emergence of warts on or around the genitals, anus, mouth, or throat.
Though not all HPV infections become cancerous, the infection is widespread. More than 43% of American adults, ages 18 to 59, are infected with genital HPV, and the infection rate is higher among men (45%) than women (40%).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all girls and boys get vaccinated at age 11 or 12, or as early as age 9, and that adolescents and young adults, ages 13 to 26, be given a “catch-up” vaccination.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved Gardasil for older adults, ages 27 to 45 years, but this group tends to benefit less from the vaccine because they are more likely to have been exposed to HPV already.
Despite its track record, fewer than half of young adults nationwide have gotten one or more doses of the HPV vaccine, and only 22% have completed the vaccine series.