Guest Editorial: Reduce your risk of cervical cancer, HPV

by Barbara Grassley

Start the new year with a commitment to learn more about cancer prevention and the steps you can take to reduce your risk. January is Cervical Health Awareness Month and a reminder to all women to talk with your health care professional not just about the causes and risks of cervical cancer, but also what you can do to prevent it.  Learn more about the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) that can cause cervical cancer and schedule your annual checkup to talk with your doctor.
In 2015, it is estimated that 12,900 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and 4,100 will die from the disease in the United States. In Iowa, it is estimated there will be 100 new cases of cervical cancer this year. Despite advancements in screening, there are still many preventable cervical cancer deaths each year if we can raise awareness of the cancer and the understanding of its connection with HPV.
What is HPV? HPV is a common sexually transmitted virus. Approximately 50 percent of sexually active people will contract some form of the virus during their lives.  Not all types of the virus cause cancer, and many such viruses go away unnoticed.  However, two types (HPV-16 and HPV-18) have been identified as causing about 70 percent of cervical cancer cases worldwide. Best administered before individuals become sexually active, the vaccines available now target these specific types, thus preventing many cancers.
HPV vaccines are recommended for both boys and girls starting at ages 11 or 12 to prevent the spread of the virus. Since the vaccine was introduced in 2006, studies have already shown a 56 percent drop in prevalence of HPV in young women. Women who have been vaccinated are still encouraged to be screened for cervical cancer since the vaccine does not protect from all types of the virus that can cause this particular cancer.
Cervical cancer can be screened using the Pap test or the newer HPV test. There has been a 70 percent decline in cervical cancer incidence since the Pap test was introduced more than 60 years ago, and it is still very effective today. Some experts recommend that women at age 21 begin cervical cancer screening with a Pap test and repeat every three years. It is preferred that women ages 30 to 64 be screened with a Pap test and HPV test every five years. At age 65, women with normal results can stop screening; however, some women may need to continue screening. If over 65, talk with your doctor about what is right for you. Patients rarely see symptoms until later stages of the disease, so it is important to be proactive.
While women in general are at risk for cervical cancer, you might be at greater risk if you:
• Have HPV
• Do not receive regular Pap tests
• Begin having sex at an early age
• Have multiple sex partners
• Have a history of smoking
• Have used birth control pills for a long time
• Were exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth
• Have a weakened immune system
• Are overweight or obese.
If you are at a higher risk, talk with your doctor about getting screened more often.
This year, make it a resolution to learn more about cervical and other preventable cancers. Schedule an appointment to talk with your health care professional about what you can do to live your healthiest life. Share this information with your loved ones to help them reduce their cancer risk. To learn more about cancer prevention and early detection, please visit the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s website at
Barbara Grassley is the spouse of Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. She is a member of the Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program of the Prevent Cancer Foundation.