A felt image of the female reproductive organs.
Strains 16 and 18 make up HPV, but there's no way to tell if it will develop into cervical cancer.

HPV and Cervical Cancer: What's the Link?

Cervical cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer in women worldwide, with 570,000 new cases in 2018, according to the World Health Organization. Nearly 70% of cervical cancer cases are caused by two specific strains of HPV, or human papillomavirus. This is a common group of viruses that are transmitted through sexual contact.

While most strains of HPV do not cause cervical cancer, it is important to be aware of the connection between HPV and cervical cancer.

What is HPV?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus. This is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world. Nearly all sexually active adults are infected with HPV, most with a low-risk strain.

Most people with HPV do not experience any symptoms from their infection, but some people experience genital warts from HPV. While they are certainly uncomfortable for the infected person, genital warts are not especially dangerous and frequently clear up on their own. Surgery can also be used to remove persistent warts, but they may return over time.

HPV and Cervical Cancer

Two strains of HPV (strains 16 and 18) are responsible for 70% of all cervical cancer cases. However, there is no way to tell whether an HPV infection will develop into cancer. The strains of HPV that cause cancer are also distinct from those that cause genital warts, so there is no connection between these conditions.

In general, people with compromised immune systems may be at higher risk of developing cancer and other complications from HPV.

Symptoms of Cervical Cancer

It can take 15 to 20 years for HPV to develop into cervical cancer. While it is impossible to tell when HPV will turn into cancer, there are signs and symptoms of cervical cancer you can monitor. These include:

  • Heavy or long periods.
  • Spotting or light bleeding between or following periods.
  • Bleeding after intercourse, douching, or a pelvic examination.
  • Increased vaginal discharge.
  • Pain during intercourse.
  • Bleeding after menopause.

If you or your loved one develop any of these early symptoms, talk to your doctor right away about getting screened for cervical cancer. If your doctor suspects cervical cancer based on your symptoms, they may make a diagnosis by examining your cervix or taking a biopsy.

If these tests confirm that you have cancer, there are additional imaging tests to determine the stage of the cancer, which is crucial for selecting the appropriate course of treatment.

Treatment of Cervical Cancer

There are a variety of treatments for cervical cancer. The types of treatment you are prescribed will depend on the stage of your cancer, and individual factors unique to each patient. Treatment is not one-size-fits-all.

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Some options for treatment of cervical cancer include:

  • Surgery: Surgeries may be used in the early phases to help diagnose cancer or remove precancerous cells. For more invasive cases, a hysterectomy may be necessary.
  • Radiation therapy: Radiation uses x-rays to kill cancer cells. Radiation may be used on its own for some cases, but it is often paired with chemotherapy because these treatments complement one another.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy uses medication that are injected by vein or taken by mouth. The medication kills cancer cells throughout the body and is often used as the main course of treatment for cervical cancer, frequently accompanied by radiation.
  • Targeted therapy: This is a newer form of therapy that uses drugs to target specific changes in cancerous cells. These drugs work differently from chemotherapy, and the two may be used in conjunction.
  • Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy stimulates the patient’s immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells. It can be used to treat cancer that has spread or come back.

The stage of cancer will help your doctor determine the best course of treatment. For early stages, surgery or radiation combined with chemo are most frequently used. For later stages, radiation combined with chemo is usually the primary course of treatment. For very advanced cases, chemotherapy on its own may be used.

Prevention of HPV-Related Cervical Cancer

While preventing an HPV infection entirely is difficult, if you are sexually active, getting vaccinated against HPV can protect you or your loved ones against future HPV-related cancer. The CDC recommends that all preteens be vaccinated for HPV. This includes boys because the cancer-causing strains of HPV can also cause penile or anal cancer in men.

Adolescents aged 9 to14 can take two doses of vaccine six months apart. Teens and young adults from 15 to 26 need three doses. If you are older than 26, talk to your doctor about whether you need an HPV vaccine, as you are more likely to have already been exposed to HPV.

As well as getting vaccinated for HPV, cervical cancer screenings are an important part of preventing cervical cancer. The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends women be screened for cervical cancer every three years.

You should always talk to your doctor if you experience any symptoms of cervical cancer. The five-year survival rate for cervical cancer is near 90% if you find the cancer in its earliest phases, and even greater when precancerous tissue is diagnosed and removed.

Being screened regularly and talking to your doctor if you experience symptoms is the best thing you can do to prevent invasive cervical cancer.