You’ve probably thought about cervical cancer at some point. There’s a fair chance it’s even affected you, either directly or through someone you know. After all, it’s the fourth-most common cancer in women, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
But the most important thing to know about cervical cancer is that you can take steps to avoid its worst outcomes. “Prevention is key when it comes to cervical cancer,” says Maureen Whelihan, MD. She’s a gynecologist in Palm Beach County, Florida.
“There is a very effective vaccine that can reduce the incidence of cervical cancer by 90% worldwide,” says Dr. Whelihan. She notes that it’s also easy to spot with routine exams. “Pap smear and HPV co-testing can detect the disease while it’s still in the earliest stages, also known as dysplasia.”
We have more on the vaccine below. But for an overview of cervical cancer — the causes, risks and treatments — start with Question 1 and work your way down. And don’t worry if you get some answers wrong. What’s important is that you leave this quiz feeling confident about your ability to protect yourself.
While you’re planning for your health, consider downloading the Optum Perks mobile app. It allows you to search for coupons that could save you as much as 80% on your prescriptions.
1. What’s the main cause of cervical cancer?
A. Skipping birth control pills
C. Human papillomavirus (HPV)
D. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
HPV is a group of viruses that are mainly transmitted through sexual contact. There are more than 100 types, according to the WHO. And most people will be infected at some point in their lives.
Most HPV infections are relatively harmless, and they go away on their own within a couple of years. But the WHO notes that at least 14 types are known to cause cancer. And this is the primary cause of cervical cancer.
While the cervix is the most common area affected, these high-risk types of HPV can also cause cancers in other places. These include the vagina, anus, penis, head and neck, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
2. The HPV virus infects only women.
HPV infection occurs in both men and women. But the biggest risk is with cervical cancer. In general, HPV doesn’t present the same risk for men as it does for women, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
In most cases, men won’t know they have the virus. There’s no approved test for HPV in men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Some strains can produce genital warts. But the CDC notes that the HPV types that cause warts aren’t the same types that can cause cancer.
3. What’s the best protection against cervical cancer?
A. The HPV vaccine
C. Pap tests or Pap smears
D. All the above
No single preventive measure does more than the HPV vaccine, says Mary Jane Minkin, MD. She’s a clinical professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the Yale School of Medicine.
“The HPV vaccine is your No. 1 protection against cervical cancer,” she says. “It can reduce your risk of cervical cancer by 90%.”
Condoms can help prevent HPV, too. But they’re not as reliable as the vaccine. HPV can infect areas that aren’t covered by a condom, according to the CDC. Even so, Dr. Minkin says a condom is always advisable if a couple are having sex with other people.
The CDC recommends vaccination for children at age 11 or 12. But it can be given as early as age 9. And it’s recommended for all people through age 26. After that, the benefit wanes. You might still choose to be vaccinated, but the CDC doesn’t recommend it for anyone older than 26.
The vaccine is given over 2 or 3 doses, depending on the age at initial vaccination. It doesn’t contain live viruses, so it cannot cause an HPV infection. But it will protect you against the HPV strains that most commonly cause both genital warts and cancer.
(Here are the other vaccines you may need, even as an adult.)
4. Who should get cervical cancer screenings?
B. All sexually active women
C. Women 21 and older
D. Pregnant women
A Pap test is the primary way doctors discover abnormal cells that could become cancer. And early detection has a huge impact on whether the cancer will be fatal.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the 5-year survival rate for cervical cancer is 92% if the cancer hasn’t spread. But once the cancer moves into the nearby lymph nodes, survival drops to 58%. By the time it reaches other organs or areas of the body, it’s down to 17%.
But you won’t have to worry about these dire statistics if you get routine Pap tests. Screening should begin at age 21 regardless of whether you’re sexually active, says Dr. Whelihan. The Pap test or Pap smear can find changes in the cells of the cervix that could lead to cancer. It can also test directly for HPV.
Most women should have cervical cancer screening every 3 to 5 years, according to Planned Parenthood. Once you’re over 65, you may no longer need tests.
5. Condoms reduce the risk of HPV transmission to nearly zero.
A close reader will notice that we gave the answer to this in Question 3. But it bears repeating: While condoms can reduce the risk of HPV transmission, they don’t eliminate it.
“A condom reduces your risk, but it is not 100%,” says Dr. Whelihan. For HPV specifically, the vaccine still offers more protection.
6. What’s one of the most common symptoms of cervical cancer?
A. Irregular or abnormal bleeding
B. Intense cramps
C. Heavy periods
D. Missing your period
“If you are having funny bleeding between periods and you’re bleeding after sex, check with your gynecologist,” says Dr. Minkin. “In the vast majority of women, this bleeding does not turn out to be cervical cancer, but it is worth getting it checked.”
Signs of more advanced cervical cancer can include pelvic pain, swollen legs and problems urinating.
7. The most common age to get cervical cancer is:
A. 15 to 24
B. 25 to 34
C. 35 to 44
D. 45 to 54
Cervical cancer is most often diagnosed in women between the ages of 35 and 44, according to the ACS.
But even much older women are at risk. In fact, more than 20% of cases are found in women over 65. (Often this is because they weren’t screened regularly before that, according to the ACS.)
Cervical cancer is very rare in women younger than 20, which is why routine screening doesn’t usually begin until after that.
(Up for another challenge? See how you fare in our breast cancer awareness quiz.)
8. If your cervical cancer screening shows abnormal cells, your doctor may recommend that you:
A. Get an IUD
B. Take an antibiotic
C. Abstain from sex
D. Get a colposcopy
To test for cervical cancer, your ob-gyn will insert a magnifying device called a colposcope into your vagina. They will then use that to examine both the vagina and the cervix. If your doctor sees an abnormal area, they may perform a biopsy. That involves taking a small amount of tissue from the cervix to send to a lab for analysis. The procedure is typically done in the doctor’s office.
If the biopsy confirms cervical cancer, you’ll move on to testing. Depending on whether the cancer has spread beyond your cervix, you’ll discuss treatment options with your doctor. This can include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy or targeted drug therapy. Your doctor will advise you on the treatment options that fit your needs.
One thing you can do to prepare for any doctor visit is to download the Optum Perks discount card before you go. If you have to pick up a prescription on the way home, just show it to the pharmacist at checkout. You may be able to unlock a lower price right at the register.
HPV and cervical cancer: World Health Organization
Cervical cancer overview: American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
HPV vaccination recommendations: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
HPV overview: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Survival rates for cervical cancer: American Cancer Society
What’s a Pap test?: Planned Parenthood
Men and HPV: Cleveland Clinic; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Cervical cancer statistics: American Cancer Society
Treating cervical cancer: American Cancer Society