Cervical and Ovarian Cancer: Making Progress at the Speed of Need
Education & Research This year, over 810,000 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with some form of cancer. Though breast is by far the most common, two cancer sites lurk under the radar: cervical and ovarian.
More than 34,000 women in the U.S. are expected to be diagnosed with cancers of the uterine cervix and ovaries this year. Though they are closely related in the sense that both are gynecological cancers, the similarities stop there.
Cervical cancer, for instance, is largely caused by a virus called human papillomavirus, or HPV. Dr. Debbie Saslow, director of breast and gynecologic cancers for the American Cancer Society, says the virus is both common and preventable.
"Not only can we test for HPV, but we also have a vaccine that can largely prevent it," explains Saslow.
The power of screening
Gardasil, Gardasil 9 and Cervarix are all vaccines that prevent strains of HPV which lead to most cancers of the cervix, as well as many cancers of the anus, vulva, vagina and throat. When it comes to screening, the American Cancer Society recommends women ages 21 to 29 receive a Pap test every three years, followed by a Pap plus HPV test every five years up to the age of 65.
"The value of cancer research cannot be understated. We're hopeful that in the next year or two, we'll see results that could be a game changer."
Saslow considers the combination “probably the most successful cancer screening and prevention that we have."
Ovarian cancer, however, is still waiting for this kind of breakthrough.
"Ovarian cancer is more lethal," explains Saslow, "because we don't have a good screening test. The tests we do have are simply not accurate enough. For the time being, we're only recommending these tests to women at high risk for the disease."
And if you’ve seen an email making the rounds claiming that you need a test called CA125, don’t believe it. It is not an effective way to catch ovarian cancer early for women at average risk.
However, in research labs across the country, progress is being made to find a better test. "The value of cancer research cannot be understated. We're hopeful that in the next year or two, we'll see results that could be a game changer," says Saslow.
So what can women do to curb their risk of either disease? "Obesity is a risk factor for ovarian as well as other cancers, so maintaining a healthy weight is important," says Saslow. "For cervical cancer, getting screened and getting kids vaccinated are the real key.”