Almost all cervical cancer cases are caused by HPV, which is a family of very common viruses. “HPV is very prevalent amongst the population,” says Dr. Richardson, radiation oncologist. Most women will be exposed to HPV through sexual contact at some point in her life. Fortunately, the vast majority of women infected with HPV will never get an HPV-associated cancer because the body’s immune system keeps the infection in a dormant and benign state. But in some cases, the HPV infection causes changes in the body’s cells. If these abnormal cells are not identified and treated, they may become cancer. Because of this and because HPV doesn’t cause any symptoms, cervical cancer screenings are very important. Click here for screening guidelines from the American Cancer Society for cervical and other women’s cancers.
The most common cancer-causing types of the HPV are HPV-16 and HPV-18. These two strains alone cause about 70% of all cervical cancer. The good news is a vaccine now exists that protects against these two HPV strains. According to Dr. Richardson, “The vaccine has been very effective in eliminating the risk of cervical cancer.” But for the vaccine to work, it must be administered to girls or boys before they are exposed to the virus, so before any sexual contact. Dr. Mackay, radiation oncologist, adds, “It’s a huge step in modernized medicine that we have a vaccine that’s targeted against virus strains that cause cancer. Getting this vaccination before exposure occurs, can help that person decades down the line.”
In addition to cervical cancer, HPV can lead to other less common women’s cancers, including vaginal, vulva and anal cancers. “Because HPV doesn’t necessarily cause symptoms, it’s very important to be conscious of your health and be aware of any changes. If you have symptoms that last longer than 2-3 weeks, then it’s time to see your primary care physician for an evaluation,” says Dr. Richardson.