Health: HPV Vaccinations:Help preventing cervical cancer

By Sandra Fletcher

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a widespread sexually transmitted disease. In North America, it is thought that nearly half of all sexually active women age 18 to 22 have HPV. The virus can cause a number of different infections; some types of HPV produce pre-cancerous lesions on the cervix. HPV does not normally have any symptoms and it generally takes several years for infections to develop into cancer.

One of the major reasons that cervical cancer has a 5 year survival rate of 30% is that its symptoms are often detected during routine PAP screening. However, every year about 400
Canadian women die from Cervical Cancer. Misdiagnosis is common amongst those who do not get tested because when symptoms do appear they are similar to many other ailments.

Those statistics, provided by the Canadian Cancer Society, are scary. But great things are being done in cancer research and there is now a vaccine that can prevent HPV infections.

The HPV vaccine was approved for use on women age 9 to 26 (or before they become sexually active). There are specific guidelines in place and you can check with your health care professional to determine if you or your daughter qualifies. HPV vaccination is NOT normally covered by OHIP; however, you may be able to receive complementary immunization through public health programs.

But some researchers in women's health have suggested that the survival rate of cervical cancer has been improving over the years because women are taking care to get regular PAP examinations. They believe that the immunization is unnecessary as the cure rates are steadily improving with early detection.

Jenny did not receive the HPV vaccination – it wasn’t available when she was a teenager. She was diagnosed with stage II cervical cancer during a routine PAP screening test in 2002. Jenny opted at age 42 for a hysterectomy to remove her uterus.

Although she tells me the operation was “so painful for months after”, she was able to return to work in 2 months and has had no recurrence of cancer or symptoms.

Jenny was lucky, in that she has 3 children and didn’t want any more. Once a woman has a hysterectomy she is no longer able to have children.

Jenny was also lucky that removing her uterus removed the cancer. Some women must also go through radiation or chemotherapy or a combination of the two. These treatments take a tremendous toll on your health and mental well-being as well. Lastly, Jenny was lucky that she was diagnosed early. For women who are diagnosed at stage IV or V, the survival rate can be as low as 10%. It is very important to ensure you are tested at each of your annual physicals.

Here are a couple of things to consider:

  • the HPV vaccine appears to be safe and has high success rate against the types of infection that can cause a life threatening disease
  • skipping or opting out of vaccination might mean that young women will miss out on the chance for protection against cervical cancer

Be careful - even if you are vaccinated against HPV, this is only one sexually transmitted disease. Women still always need to practice safe sex. PAP testing every year is critical for detection. Ultimately you can help your daughter, granddaughter, sister or yourself take personal responsibility for sexual health.

Signs and symptoms of cervical cancer
Cervical cancer in its early or precancerous stages often does not cause any symptoms at all. That is why it is important for women to have regular Pap tests.

Cervical cancer can develop over a long time without causing any signs or symptoms.
You may notice one or more of these symptoms:

  • abnormal bleeding from the vagina
  • bleeding or spotting between regular menstrual periods
  • bleeding after sex
  • menstrual periods that last longer and are heavier than before
  • bleeding after menopause
  • more discharge from the vagina than normal
  • pain in the pelvis or lower back
  • pain during sexual intercourse

Often, these symptoms are caused by other health problems or infections, not cancer. Testing is needed to make a diagnosis.

SOURCE: Canadian Cancer Society