September is a big month for women’s sexual health: there are four big awareness holidays to celebrate, including Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome Awareness Month, Menopause Awareness Month, Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month.
Today, we’re exploring how one of the five main gynecological cancers — cervical cancer — relates to STDs.
The Link Between STDs and Cervical Cancer
What Causes Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer occurs in the cervix, which is the part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. An STD, human papilloma virus, is what cauces cervical cancer.
Most women and men who have ever had sex have been infected with HPV at some point in their lives, since the virus is spread through intercourse. Basically, HPV causes infection in the cervix. This infection doesn’t last long because your immune system can easily fight it — but when it comes into contact with the cervix, it can turn ordinary cells into precancerous cells.
The cellular changes aren’t large enough to be noticeable, and they can go back to normal on their own or be treated. But if these cells aren’t treated and don’t revert on their own, they can develop into cervical cancer.
Fortunately, very few HPV infections actually lead to cervical cancer. Still, it’s important that you take the threat of infection seriously.
Who is at risk for cervical cancer?
All women are at risk for cervical cancer, because HPV is extremely common. Essentially, any woman who has ever had intercourse is at risk. However, there are elevated risks for women who:
- Have HPV that doesn’t go away
- Have other STDs like HIV or AIDS
- Do not get tested for cervical cancer as recommended
How can women lower their risk for cervical cancer?
Because there is no treatment for the kind of HPV that causes cervical cell changes but these changes can be treated once they occur, regular cervical cancer screenings and Pap smears are recommended for all women at the following intervals (even if you’ve gotten your HPV vaccine):
- 21 – 29 years: get a Pap test every 3 years.
- 30 – 65 years: get a Pap test and an HPV test every 5 years OR just a Pap test every 3 years
- 65+: if you had regular testing for the past 10 years and no serious pre-cancerous cells in the past 20 years, you can stop testing.
If you have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer or have had pre-cancerous cervical cells, be sure to talk to your health care provider to develop a customized testing schedule.