Medical Minute: The Importance of Regular Cervical Cancer Screenings and HPV Vaccines

January 13, 2023


Paul Welch, MD, is the Adventist Health Tillamook Ambulatory Medical Director. As a board-certified medical provider with decades of experience in both care and leadership, he provides strategies for all clinical practice settings to provide the best experience and outcomes for all patients in the communities that Adventist Health Tillamook serves.

Each year, approximately 14,000 women in the United States receive a cervical cancer diagnosis. But many cervical cancers are preventable with proper screening and vaccination. While there is no guaranteed way to prevent cancer of any type, the good news is there are strategies proven to lower your risk of cervical cancer: regular screenings and human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines.

Screenings enable your provider to find early-stage cancer and cervical changes that could turn into cancer. Often, cervical cancer doesn’t cause any noticeable signs or symptoms in its early stages, underscoring the need for regular screenings. Women aged 21 to 29 should have a Pap smear every three years as long as Pap results continue to be typical. With a Pap smear, providers test cervical cells to see if there are any irregularities. Additionally, women aged 30 to 65 may have an HPV test every five years instead of, or along with, Pap smears.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, affecting around 8 in 10 people who are sexually active. And there’s a direct link between HPV infection and your risk of cervical cancer. HPV tests look for the most common high-risk types of HPV. At least 14 of the 100 types of HPV lead to cancer, with two specific types of HPV accounting for about 70% of cervical cancers and precancerous growths. For women younger than 21, HPV vaccines are the most effective tool in preventing cervical cancer. Experts recommend that everyone between the ages of 9 and 26 get the HPV vaccine. And though the vaccine is most effective before HPV exposure, it can still have some protective effects up to age 45.

A healthy lifestyle can increase your overall wellness and lower your risk of chronic conditions. And with New Year’s resolutions, many of us want to adopt new and better lifestyle habits. When it comes to cervical health, there are a few factors that can make a significant difference:

Boost your immune system. If you have a healthy immune system, your body will be better equipped to clear an HPV infection, should you have it. Sleeping enough, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and getting the proper nutrients to increase your overall immune health.

Quit smoking. Women who smoke, especially those with HPV, are more likely than nonsmokers to develop several types of cancer, including cervical cancer. If you smoke, work with your healthcare provider on a plan to quit.

Manage stress. While there is no direct correlation between stress management and cancer prevention, managing stress with healthy coping tools increases your overall wellness. And some research has shown that many women get abnormal Pap results after periods of intense stress. Deal with stress in healthy ways, such as talking with a friend, journaling or praying.

In good health,
Dr. Paul Welch