How to Catch Cervical Cancer Early—or Prevent It Altogether

Green Ribbon in Hand

The number of deaths from cervical cancer has dropped dramatically over the past several decades, but Floor Backes, MD, envisions a day when that number hits zero.

“It’s happening right now in Australia, where they’re on target to eradicate cervical cancer in the next 10 years,” says Backes, an associate professor in the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).

In honor of Cervical Health Awareness Month, let’s look at some of the methods Backes and other experts use to treat cervical cancer and catch it early, as well as some prevention practices women can use to increase their chances of avoiding the disease altogether.

Pap Test

Introduced in the 1950s, the Pap test (also known as the Pap smear) helped to reduce the cervical cancer death rate by almost 70 percent by 1992, and it's still saving lives today.

“It detects pre-cancerous cells in the cervix that can easily be removed before they become cancerous, and it can detect cancer in the early stages,” Backes says.

Women should get their first Pap test at the age of 21, and then continue to be tested every three years until the age of 30, at which time Backes recommends the screening every three to five years.

“This is so important because the cure rate goes down from about 90 percent to 40-50 percent when it’s first detected in the late stages,” she says. “Once it has spread beyond the lymph nodes and outside the pelvic area, it is not curable.”

HPV Vaccination

The human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine provides an effective way to prevent cervical cancer and many other forms of the disease, according to Backes.

HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer and can also cause genital warts, anal cancer, vulvar cancer and oropharyngeal cancer,” she says. “About 85 percent of all women will be exposed to HPV at some point in their lives through sexual contact.”

Backes says that all girls and boys should receive the HPV vaccination at the age of 11 or 12, and the vaccine is most effective if introduced before exposure to HPV.

“The FDA has approved a new vaccine that extends the age to 45. It’s most effective if you have not already been introduced to HPV but also effective in men and women who have already been exposed.”

Australia has a mandatory, school-based HPV vaccine program, helping to put the country on target to eliminate the disease. It’s a policy Backes would like to see implemented in the U.S.

“We have to do something like this here,” Backes says. “Trust the HPV vaccination, it works.”

Warning Signs

An estimated 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year in the U.S., and there are about 4,000 deaths. This form of cancer occurs most often in midlife, usually in women younger than 50.

The symptoms of cervical cancer include:

  • bleeding between regular menstrual periods
  • bleeding after sexual intercourse, douching or pelvic exams
  • menstrual periods that last longer than usual and include heavier bleeding
  • bleeding after menopause

Treatment Options

Recent advancements, including targeted treatments and immunotherapy, have given Backes and other gynecologic oncologists more and better options to treat cervical cancer patients.

“Because we see so many cases of cervical cancer, we have developed an expertise in treating it,” Backes says, adding that patients from surrounding states and beyond come to The James for treatment, second opinions and to enroll in clinical trials.

While treatment for cervical cancer has improved, the benefits of those therapies aren’t distributed equally in the U.S., resulting in a significantly higher death rate among women in poor portions of the country compared to those who live in more affluent areas.

The problem is seen throughout the country, where less affluent patients are disproportionately dying from cases of cancer that may have been successfully treated in their early stages, often due to issues with health care access and insurance.

“It leads to the advanced stages of cervical cancer that we see here with women who haven’t seen a doctor in 20 or 30 years,” Backes says.

Read more about cervical cancer treatments available at The James, or call 800-293-5066 or 614-293-5066 to make an appointment.