Can cervical cancer be prevented?

A2blSince the most common form of cervical cancer starts with pre-cancerous changes, there are two ways you can stop this disease from developing. The first is to find and treat pre-cancers before they become true cancers; the second is to prevent the pre-cancers. 

What you can do to indentify cervical pre-cancers

A well-proven way to prevent cervix cancer is to have both a Pap test (or Pap smear) and the human papilloma virus (HPV) test. If a pre-cancer is found it can be treated, stopping cervical cancer before it really starts.

  • All women should begin cervical cancer testing at age 21. Women aged 21 to 29 should have a Pap test at least every 3 years.
  • The preferred way to screen from age 30 onwards is with a Pap test every year and an HPV test every 5 years.
  • Women who are at high risk for cervical cancer because of a suppressed immune system (e.g. from HIV infection, organ transplant or long-term steroid use) need to be screened more often.
  • Women who’ve had a total hysterectomy (removal of the uterus and cervix) should stop screening (i.e. Pap tests and HPV tests) unless the hysterectomy was done as a treatment for cervical pre-cancer (or cancer). Women who’ve had a hysterectomy without removal of the cervix (called a supra-cervical hysterectomy) should continue cervical cancer screening.
  • Women who’ve been vaccinated against HPV should still follow these guidelines. 

Some women believe that they can cease cervical cancer screening once they’ve stopped having children. This is not correct. 

What you can do to prevent pre-cancers

1.    Avoid being exposed to HPV 

Since HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer and pre-cancer, avoiding exposure to HPV could help you prevent this disease. HPV is passed from one person to another during skin-to-skin contact with an infected area of the body. Although HPV can be spread during sex, all that’s needed is skin-to-skin contact with an area of the body infected with HPV. This means that the virus can be spread through genital-to-genital contact (without intercourse) and even through hand-to-genital contact.

Also, HPV can be spread from one part of the body to another. This means that an infection may start in the cervix and then spread to the vagina and vulva.

HPV infections occur mainly in younger women and are less common in women older than 30. The reason for this is not clear. Women who’ve had many sexual partners are more likely to get infected with HPV, but a woman who has had only one sexual partner can still be infected.

Condoms provide some protection against HPV and against HIV and some other sexually transmitted diseases. Condoms (when used by the male partner) also seem to help clear HPV infections and cervical pre-cancers faster.

2.    Don’t smoke 

Not smoking is another important way to reduce the risk of cervical pre-cancer and cancer.

3.    Get vaccinated 

Vaccines have been developed to protect women from HPV infections, but must be given before a person becomes exposed to HPV.

Preventive screening is important in making sure you detect medical conditions early. The Screening and Prevention Benefit offered on all Discovery Health plans covers the Pap smear and other screening tests. This is a separate benefit and does not affect your day-to-day benefits.

CarolynCarolyn Seely
Medical Aid Administrator
carolyn@fpm.co.za
0861 111 376

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your financial adviser for specific and detailed advice.