Mary (not her real name) was 32 years old when she first heard the words “human papillomavirus.” After a routine Pap smear, Mary’s doctor informed her that her sample contained abnormal cells caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Mary also learned that there are more than 100 types of HPV that can cause adverse health conditions – from genital warts to cervical and anal cancer. Unfortunately, the high-risk type of HPV detected in Mary’s sample was the kind that could lead to cancer if left untreated.
After several months of watchful waiting to determine if her immune system would get rid of the virus on its own, Mary underwent a surgical procedure to remove the precancerous cells on her cervix.
What is HPV?
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness month in the U.S. HPV, the virus that causes it, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 79 million men and women in the U.S. (about twice the population of California) have contracted HPV. Although HPV is usually harmless and can go away by itself, there is no way to know who will develop cancer or other health problems from HPV.
“Eight in 10 people will have HPV in their lifetime and many have no symptoms,” said Dr. Kim Yung, director of clinical service at The Good Clinic. “Currently, there is no cure for HPV, but there is a lot you can do to prevent it from having a negative impact on your health.”
Protect yourself against HPV
First, get the HPV vaccine, which was approved for use in 2006. The CDC recommends everyone ages 12 to 26 should be vaccinated against HPV.
Although Mary was too old to get the vaccine when it was introduced, she made sure her daughter was vaccinated at age 12 to prevent any future health problems caused by HPV.
According to the CDC, the vaccine seems to be working. Infections with HPV types that cause most HPV cancers and genital warts have dropped 88 percent among teen girls and 81 percent among young adult women. The percentage of cervical precancers caused by the HPV types most often linked to cervical cancer has dropped by 40 percent among vaccinated women.
In addition to getting the vaccine, practicing safe sex (i.e., using condoms) is one of the best tools men and women can use to protect themselves against HPV.
Regular cervical cancer screenings save lives
High-risk HPV can be treated before it turns into cancer by completing cervical cancer screening. The CDC recommends that women schedule the following ongoing cervical cancer screening:
- At age 21, women should get their first cervical cancer screening. If the test result is normal, they can wait three years for the next test.
- Women 30 to 65 years old should continue getting a Pap test, an HPV test, or both tests together. If the Pap test is normal, they can wait three years for the next test. If the HPV test is normal, the next HPV test should be completed in five years.
- Women who are 65 and older should talk to their primary care provider about whether further screening is needed if they have had normal screening test results for several years.
In Mary’s case, a regular screening detected an abnormal Pap smear at age 55 after two decades of normal results. Fortunately, she established a good relationship with her primary care provider and was able to co-create a personalized plan for ongoing preventive care.
Whole-person primary care near you
Maintaining a relationship with your primary care provider allows you to stay on top of life-saving preventive care like cancer screening, immunizations, and heart disease risk assessments.
At The Good Clinic, we bring a more personal approach to primary care – connecting you with a knowledgeable, compassionate team of professionals who care deeply about you and your health and wellness. Our philosophy is that you’re in charge of your health—we are here to support you.
Whether you need a routine Pap smear and pelvic exam, would like an HPV vaccine, have a chronic or urgent health concern, or are experiencing anything in between, let’s map out the next steps together.