When I was diagnosed at 25 with cervical cancer, it seemingly came out of nowhere. But that’s not exactly true. When I reflect the truth of the matter, I wasn’t on top of critical screenings and I didn’t make my health a priority. What I’ve since learned is that I can’t blame myself, but I can make it right – for myself and future generations.
After losing fertility and nearly my life, I’ve become and advocate for cervical cancer prevention. When I started this journey, I didn’t really grasp the scope of what we could actually do to eradicate this disease, but with the addition of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, we absolutely can.
Here are the top 4 things that I want you to know about cervical cancer:
1. Cervical cancer can be prevented
It is the only cancer of which we know the cause and we actually have the tools (Pap + HPV Tests) to detect. In order to catch abnormal cells on the cervix, you must get your critical screening tests. 528,000 women worldwide are diagnosed annually and tragically, half of those will die.
2. Guidelines change and it gets confusing
A key to overcoming this is to have a good relationship with your primary care physician. That means going in for an annual well-woman exam. This visit helps to get you on a routine schedule and allows your medical care team to check off any important screenings you may need and the frequency of them.
3. Most people are confused about HPV
It is a sexually-transmitted virus, one of the most common in the world. Anyone who has had sex has been exposed to HPV. Eighty percent of the population has HPV. The stigma and shame of sexually transmitted viruses often prevent women and men from sharing their stories. If you are a woman wanting connect with other women, check out one of our Cervivor meet-up events taking place across the country.
4. In all of this, there is still good news
Most HPV infections clear on their own. However, those that don’t clear can turn into cancer or other diseases. HPV is responsible for seven different types of cancer. But there are new diagnostic tools that can help detect cervical cancer, and the HPV vaccine can prevent it entirely. The vaccine is recommended for boys and girls and the best protection is given while they are in middle school before they are exposed the HPV.
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions:
- How is HPV spread?
- Through skin-to-skin intimate contact.
- Is HPV linked to cancer?
- Yes: cervical, oral, anal, penile, vaginal, vulvar
- Is HPV linked to genital warts?
- Yes, all genital warts are linked to HPV types 6 and 11
- Can HPV be prevented?
- There is a vaccine that protects against the types of HPV that cause most cancers and genital warts. Condoms also help prevent HPV.
Prevention and early detection are key. The HPV vaccine is recommended for men and women, as well as annual STI screening. Women are recommended to get an annual exam, and a Pap test starting at age 21. Beyond that, everyone should be getting vaccinated: flu, HPV and meningitis, to name a few.
We all have the power to end this cancer for good — right now. There has never been a more perfect time to do your part. That means taking advantage of screenings and vaccinations, but also letting a woman with cervical cancer know that she is not alone. In 2001, I felt so alone and ashamed. I never want that for another woman. You have the power to spread that knowledge on to the next person.