January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, an excellent time to test our knowledge of a cancer that the American Cancer Society believes could be eliminated with widespread adoption of the HPV vaccine.
Here are 10 true or false questions. You'll find the answers at the bottom.
1. The Pap test to detect cervical cancer is named after George Papanicolaou, MD (1883–1962). True or false?
2. Most cervical cancers are caused by HPV. True or false?
3. Most cervical cancers can be prevented by regular screening. True or false?
4. Only women need to be concerned about HPV? True or false?
5. Cervical cancer grows slowly and tends to occur in midlife. True or false?
6. Once vaccinated against HPV, women no longer need Pap tests and HPV tests. True or false?
7. A family history of cervical cancer and HPV infections can increase your risk for cervical cancer. True or false?
8. HPV infection is very common. Most men and women who have ever had sex get at least one type of genital HPV at some time in their lives. True or false?
9. There is no cure for an HPV infection, but in most cases it goes away on its own. True or false?
10. All women should have cervical cancer screenings beginning at age 21. Women ages 21 to 29 should receive a Pap test every 3 years. True or false?
1. True. The Pap test was developed by George Papanicolaou, MD, in the 1920s. At first, most doctors were skeptical, and it was not until the American Cancer Society promoted the test during the early 1960s that this test became widely used. Cervical cancer mortality rates have decreased by more than 50 percent over the past four decades.
2. True. The human papillomavirus (pap-ah-LO-mah-VI-rus) or HPV is known to cause almost all cervical cancers. HPVs are a large group of related viruses. Each virus in the group is given a number, which is called an HPV type. Most HPV types cause warts on the skin, such as on the arms, chest, hands, or feet. Other types are found mainly on the body's mucous membranes, such as the vagina, anus, mouth, and throat. The HPV types found on mucous membranes are sometimes called genital HPV. Genital HPV is not the same as HIV or herpes. Low-risk HPV causes warts (papillomas) on or around the genitals and anus of both men and women, and they rarely cause cancer. Other types of HPV are called "high-risk" because they can cause cancers of the cervix, vagina, and vulva in women, as well as certain mouth, throat, and anal cancers in men and women, and penile cancer in men. Doctors worry more about the cell changes and pre-cancers linked to these types, because they're more likely to grow into cancers over time. Common high-risk HPV types include HPV 16 and 18.
3. True. Cervical cancer is preventable with vaccines and regular screening tests. More than half of the women in the U.S. who get cervical cancer have never had or rarely had a Pap test. Cervical cancer can be found early and even prevented with routine screening tests. The Pap test looks for abnormal changes in cervical cells, while the HPV test finds HPV infections that can lead to cell changes and cancer. Although HPV can be spread during sexual contact – including vaginal, anal, and oral sex – sex isn't the only way for the infection to spread. All that's needed is skin-to-skin contact with an area of the body infected with HPV.
4. False. Any man or woman who has ever had any sexual contact with another person can get HPV, even if they only had one partner, however infections are more likely in people who have had many sex partners. Because males can get HPV, vaccines are also given to pre-teen boys and girls to protect them from HPV infections. These vaccines are recommended at ages 11 or 12, but can start as early as age 9.
5. True. Cervical cancer is most frequently diagnosed between the ages of 34 and 44, with only 15% of cases found in women over 65.
6. False. Even women who have received the HPV vaccine are not covered against all the types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer. There are about a dozen high-risk types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. The vaccine protects against the seven that are responsible for most HPV-caused cancers. That's why all women, even those who are vaccinated, need to follow guidelines for screening.
7. True. And women who don't have health insurance or adequate coverage also have a greater risk of developing and dying from cervical cancer. That's because high-quality cancer screening is not as easily available to everyone equally. Neither is high-quality follow-up care after abnormal results from screening.
8. True. HPV infections are very common. Most HPV infections are cleared by the body without causing problems, but some infections do not clear and can lead to cell changes that might cause cancer. Chronic, or long-lasting infection, especially when it's caused by certain high-risk HPV types, can cause cancer over time. You cannot get HPV from toilet seats, hugging or holding hands, swimming pools or hot tubs, sharing food or utensils, or being unclean. At higher risk for HPV-related health problems are gay and bisexual men and people with weak immune systems (including those who have HIV/AIDS).
9. True. Athough there is no cure for the virus itself, there are treatments for the genital warts and abnormal cell changes that HPV can cause. However, in most cases, it goes away on its own.
10. True. And, for women ages 30 to 65, the preferred way to screen is with a Pap test combined with an HPV test every 5 years. This is the preferred approach, but it is also OK to have a Pap test alone every 3 years. Women over age 65 who have had regular screenings with normal results should not be screened for cervical cancer. Women who have been diagnosed with cervical cancer or pre-cancer should continue to be screened according to the recommendations of their doctor. Women who have had their uterus and cervix removed in a hysterectomy and have no history of cervical cancer or pre-cancer should not be screened.
Learn more at cancer.org/fightcervicalcancer.