Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer among women globally, according to the World Health Organization. Yet, despite its prevalence there is still misinformation surrounding the disease. The rise of social media and sites like TikTok have led to a slew of information that may be incomplete or inaccurate, contributing to confusion around the disease. Here we’ll break down common myths and share expert-backed information you need to know to take charge of your health.
Myth: Cervical cancer can’t be prevented.
This is perhaps one of the biggest myths surrounding the disease. The good news is that cervical cancer is highly preventable and there are several actions you can take to protect yourself.
The first step is making sure you’ve received the HPV (Human Papillomavirus) vaccine. The HPV vaccine helps prevent against several high-risk HPV strains.
It’s recommended that HPV vaccination begin for girls and boys aged 11 or 12. If you didn’t receive the vaccine during adolescence, your provider may recommend it up to age 26. Select patients, from ages 27- 45, might also benefit from vaccination against HPV. As always, it’s best to discuss your options with your provider.
Second, is staying on top of your regular Pap tests and gynecologic exams. According to the National Cancer Institute, regular Pap testing can reduce cancer rates by 80%. Cervical cancer cells usually take many years to develop. Therefore, regular Pap tests can detect any possible changes in cervical cancer cells before they progress to cancer.
Myth: If you received the HPV vaccine, you don’t need regular Pap tests.
The HPV vaccine is highly effective in preventing against several high-risk HPV strains, reducing the risk of cervical cancer. However, it does not eliminate the need for regular Pap tests, as the vaccine does not cover all cancer-causing strains.
Pap tests should be a regular part of your overall wellness routine. During the Pap test, your provider will use a plastic or metal instrument, called a speculum, to look inside your vagina. This helps your provider to examine the vagina and the cervix and collect a few cells from the cervix for testing. These cells are then sent to a laboratory for testing. In some cases, an HPV test may be recommended. This is completed in a similar manner but looks for HPV in the cervical cells. Your Axia Women’s Health provider can help you determine your personal screening plan.
Generally, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends cervical cancer screening begin for all women at the age of 21. From the ages of 21-29 a Pap test is recommended every 3 years. From ages 30-65, any of the following is acceptable screening: a Pap test alone every 3 years, HPV testing alone every 5 years or co-testing, meaning a Pap test completed in conjunction with the HPV test.
Myth: Pap tests are painful.
Pap tests are generally not painful, although some individuals may experience mild discomfort. If you feel any pain or discomfort during the exam, don’t be afraid to speak up! It may be the case that you need a different sized speculum. Your provider can adjust this to make the exam more comfortable for you. Practicing slow, relaxed breathing can help you release any tension during the exam. Talking with your provider may also help you relax by offering a pleasant distraction.
Myth: If you have HPV, you’ll get cervical cancer.
This is a common myth that needs to be dispelled. Having HPV does not guarantee that you’ll develop cervical cancer. While certain HPV strains increase your risk, the fact is most HPV infections resolve on their own without causing cancer.
However, because having HPV can increase your risk, it’s still important to get vaccinated. The vaccination can help improve your body’s chances of fighting of the infection.
Myth: You are more likely to get cervical cancer if you have had multiple sexual partners.
While multiple sexual partners may increase the risk of HPV exposure, it is not the sole determinant of cervical cancer risk. Regular screenings and safe practices, along with vaccination, play a crucial role in prevention.
Myth: Pap tests can also test for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Pap tests primarily focus on detecting abnormal cervical cells that may lead to cancer. A Pap test is not designed for comprehensive STI screening. Additional testing can be ordered to test for the most common STIs. If you think you may have been exposed, it’s important to discuss your options for testing with your provider.
Myth: You don’t need a Pap test after menopause.
Regular Pap tests are still recommended if you’re going through or have gone through menopause. The risk of cervical cancer is still present as we age. Your healthcare provider will guide you on the appropriate screening frequency based on individual health factors and when you can stop screening.
Myth: Cervical cancer symptoms are easy to spot.
Early stages of cervical cancer may not exhibit noticeable symptoms, that’s why regular screening is critical. If cervical cancer progresses, it may cause symptoms like vaginal bleeding after intercourse, pelvic pain or pain during intercourse, or vaginal discharge that is watery and has a strong odor or contains blood.
When it comes to prevention, the HPV vaccine and Pap tests are an important part of protecting against cervical cancer. Your Axia Women’s Health team is here to be your partner in health! With knowledge, awareness, and regular check-ins you can protect yourself against cervical cancer.
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