There are few guarantees in life.
If Steve Vasilev, M.D., were a betting man, however, he’d put his money down on the the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine to prevent cervical cancer — 99 percent of the time.
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The gynecologic oncologist and medical director of Integrative Gynecologic Oncology at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told LifeZette that physicians need to talk with their patients about this vaccine, especially as new numbers show women in the U.S. are dying from cervical cancer at rates higher than previously believed.
“This cancer can [ultimately] be eliminated in a population that is screened properly,” said Vasilev, referencing the vaccine. “The problem is due to socioeconomic disparities in this country. We have a significant population that is under-screened.”
The most notable risk is for older women and black women, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Screening until now has only been recommended through the age of 65. But women dying of the disease are often older, have never had the vaccine, and are no longer being screened. They don’t realize they’re still at risk.
The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancers, cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately. The HPV test looks for the virus that can cause these cell changes. Vasilev said that while the Pap smear is notoriously incorrect, it is still an important test. He added that new recommendations may not be that far off to make HPV the main test to avoid this cancer.
When someone like ESPN’s sideline reporter, Erin Andrews, who announced her own diagnosis on Tuesday, is willing to talk — it definitely helps raise the profile and comfort level of the conversation.
Screening for cervical cancer involves routine Pap smears for women between the ages of 21 and 65. If women have had three healthy tests over the previous decade, they are no longer recommended for testing after the age of 65. An inexpensive Pap smear can find changes in the cervix before cancer develops. It can also find cervical cancer early, when it is in its most curable stage.
Worth noting: HPV-related mouth and throat cancers are becoming more common, especially among men who are not routinely screened for the virus.
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A head and neck cancer specialist at the University of Chicago, Dr. Tanguy Seiwert, told the Associated Press last week that the results show that “doctors and parents need to step up efforts to vaccinate boys and young men and get over concerns that the HPV vaccine will lead to risky sexual behavior.”