Cervical Cancer Myths & Facts
Through the years, there have been quite a few misconceptions and myths floating around about cervical cancer, especially about HPV and Pap smears. Separate fact from fiction by reviewing these cervical cancer myths.
MYTH: Cervical cancer cannot be prevented.
FACT: Cervical cancer can be prevented. The most effective means of cervical cancer prevention is regular Pap smear exams. A Pap test checks for changes in the cells of your cervix. If any cell changes are found, they should be followed-up closely and, if needed, they can be treated so the cancer does not develop. To reduce your risk of cervical cancer you should: have Pap tests regularly talk to your healthcare provider about the HPV vaccine (you still need to get Pap tests even if you do get the vaccine) limit the number of sexual partners you have use condoms practice abstinence or start sexual activity later in life not smoke and limit second-hand smoke exposure.
The approval of Gardasil, the HPV vaccine, provides the most protection to young women. Given to girls as young as 9 years of age, the HPV vaccine protects against high risk strains of HPV that are known to cause cervical cancer.
MYTH: All Women Need a Pap Smear Yearly
FACT: While this used to be true, updated cervical cancer screening guidelines do not require all women to have a Pap smear yearly. Frequency of testing depends on age, previous test results, and when a woman becomes sexually active.
MYTH: Condoms Prevent HPV
FACT: Condoms provide a limited amount of protection against HPV, the current leading cause of cervical cancer. Because HPV is transmitted through sexual contact, not just intercourse, HPV still may be transmitted. HPV can be found on skin not covered by condoms.
An HPV study at the University of Washington found that condoms may prevent the transmission of HPV by up to 70%. More research is being conducted about the effectiveness of condoms against HPV.
MYTH: Only Promiscuous Women Get Cervical Cancer
FACT: Having many sexual partners is a risk factor for cervical cancer. However, women who have had only one partner can develop cervical cancer, also. No one can pinpoint exactly why one woman may develop cervical cancer and another may not. There are many factors in cervical cancer development.
MYTH: Cervical Cancer Only Occurs in Developing Countries
FACT: Cervical cancer is a disease that plagues women in all countries, developed or not. In fact, more than 9,000 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer this year, and almost 4,000 will die from it in the United States. Because of the Pap smear, the rate of cervical cancer cases and deaths have greatly declined over the past 20 years.
MYTH: Older Women Don’t Need Pap Smears
FACT: All women need to have a regular Pap smear until her doctor decides they are no longer necessary. This usually happens when a woman turns 65 and hasn’t had an abnormal Pap smear within the last 10 years. If you are unsure of when you should stop getting regular Pap smears, talk to your doctor.
MYTH: HPV Is Uncommon
FACT: HPV is extremely common. It is estimated that more than 20 million people are infected with HPV in the U.S. In fact, it is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S.
MYTH: Women With HPV Will Get Cervical Cancer
FACT: There are more than a hundred types of HPV and only a few types are associated with cervical cancer. An HPV test is available for some women to determine if they are infected with HPV and if it is a high-risk type. While HPV may never lead to cervical cancer, the infection does last a lifetime.
MYTH: I don’t need a Pap test.
FACT: A woman’s first Pap test should be given when she turns 21 or three years after she begins having intercourse, whichever comes first. Recommendations differ for how often a woman should receive a Pap test. Ask your doctor how often you should be screened. Even if you have the HPV vaccine, you still need a regular Pap test. The vaccine targets four types of HPV but it will not protect against all the types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, so it’s still important to continue regular screenings.
MYTH: I am too old to need a Pap test.
FACT: Pap tests should be a regular part of your health routine until you are at least age 70. The risk of cervical cancer does not decrease with age, even if you have the same sexual partner or are no longer sexually active. Continued regular screening is very important. If you have a hysterectomy, talk to your healthcare provider about whether Pap tests are still needed.
MYTH: My doctor gave me a pelvic exam, which is the same as a Pap test.
FACT: The Pap test collects cells from the cervix, which are sent to a lab to be evaluated. In a pelvic exam, your doctor physically examines the cervix and other parts of a woman’s anatomy. Both are important to detect problems early.
MYTH: My Pap test was abnormal, which means I must have cancer.
FACT: Not necessarily. You’ll likely need follow-up tests, possibly a test for HPV, colposcopy or a biopsy to test for cancerous cells. An abnormal Pap test could indicate a precancerous condition that can be treated. Conversely, a negative Pap test does not always mean a woman is cancer-free. About 10 percent of all Pap tests return a false negative result, meaning the test did not identify a problem that is there. If you have problems such as bleeding or pain, seek further care even if your last Pap test was normal.
MYTH: If I am diagnosed with cervical cancer, I am going to die.
FACT: Survival after cervical cancer caught in its earliest stage is 92 percent. The later it is diagnosed, the lower the chance of survival. Survival is lower in developing countries because of inadequate screening. Regular screening will help ensure cervical cancer is caught at an early, treatable stage.
MYTH: After I finish treatment, I will live the rest of my life worried about cancer returning.
FACT: If cervical cancer is going to recur, it is most likely to happen in the first two years after treatment. Most patients are followed for five years, after which the risk of recurrence is extremely low.
MYTH: I must have a hysterectomy to treat cervical cancer.
FACT: Early cervical cancer is typically treated with a hysterectomy, surgery that removes the cervix and uterus. But it’s not the only option. Radiation and chemotherapy are used to treat more advanced disease and may also be options for women with early stage disease who cannot have surgery. Some women with early cervical cancer can also avoid hysterectomy with procedures such as a cone biopsy that removes only the cancerous tissue and a small margin of surrounding healthy tissue, or a procedure called radical trachelectomy, which removes the cervix but not the uterus.
MYTH: I won’t be able to conceive a child after cervical cancer treatment.
FACT: If you have a hysterectomy or radiation to treat cervical cancer, you will not be able to conceive. But newer surgical procedures help preserve a woman’s fertility without compromising survival. A radical trachelectomy removes the cervix but not the uterus so that a woman can still conceive. For small, early cancers, a cone biopsy may be appropriate and will also preserve fertility.
MYTH: I am too young to worry about cervical cancer.
FACT: Many cases of cervical cancer occur in older women, but younger women can still get cervical cancer. You should have Pap tests regularly starting at age 21, or 3 years after becoming sexually active, whichever is later.
MYTH: I have no symptoms so I do not need to worry about getting a Pap test.
FACT: Most people infected with HPV never have symptoms. Ninety percent of HPV infections in women clear up on their own in less than 2 years. In rare cases, the HPV infection does not go away and causes cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer after many years if left untreated. Pap tests check for cervical cell changes caused by HPV. These changes can be followed-up closely and treated to prevent cervical cancer. If you do have symptoms (bleeding between periods or after sexual intercourse) between Pap tests, see your healthcare provider.
MYTH: Women who have the HPV (Gardasil®) vaccine do not need to get a Pap test.
FACT: The HPV vaccine does not protect against all the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. Women still need Pap tests regularly even if they have been vaccinated against HPV.
*The approval of Gardasil, the HPV vaccine, provides the most protection to young women. Given to girls as young as 9 years of age, the HPV vaccine protects against high risk strains of HPV that are known to cause cervical cancer.
MYTH: If I have an abnormal Pap test, it means I have cervical cancer.
FACT: An abnormal Pap test does not mean you have cancer. An abnormal Pap test means the cells taken from your cervix look different from normal cells when seen under a microscope. These cell changes can develop into cervical cancer over many years if left untreated. All women with an abnormal result should be followed-up closely.
MYTH: If I have HPV, my current partner must have given it to me.
FACT: Genital HPV is spread easily by intimate skin-to-skin contact in the genital area. This includes touching, oral sex, or intercourse with a partner of either sex. HPV is very common. It can go undetected for many years. For most people, it is difficult to know when they were infected or who infected them.
MYTH: If I have HPV, I will get cervical cancer.
FACT: Over 70% of sexually active people will get HPV in their lifetime. Most people infected with HPV never show any symptoms. The body’s immune system usually clears the virus within 2 years. Some low risk types of HPV can cause genital warts when the virus does not clear on its own. About 15 high risk types of HPV can cause cervical cell changes if the HPV infection does not go away. If untreated these cell changes can develop into cervical cancer over many years. Pap tests are the best way to find abnormal cell changes to prevent them from developing into cancer.