About those HPV rumours
Don’t get scared. Get informed!
We clear a few things up
Cervical cancer has been making headlines lately. A report earlier this year found that more people die of the disease than originally thought. In addition, this form of cancer is deadlier for certain women, which led to a general freak-out, especially since 90% of all cervical cancer cases are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), an STI 85% of sexually active women will contract in their lifetime. Let’s clear a few things up then. HPV means you’ll develop cancer
Visit online women’s health forums and you’ll encounter the fear that HPV is certain doom for cervical cancer. But that’s not how it works. There are more than 120 types of HPV; many are ‘ low-risk’ and don’t cause any adverse effects or need treatment.
Nearly all cases of cervical cancer come from two particular strains, HPV16 and HPV18, which can also lead to cancers of the throat, vulva, vagina and anus. If you test positive for a high-risk strain, your doctor may take a wait-and-see approach and simply suggest more frequent Pap smears, because your body may clear the infection on its own. (This approach is safe, since it can take between five and 10 years for high-risk HPV to cause cervical cancer – it’s one major reason most doctors don’t even screen for HPV until age 30.) But if you test positive and your Pap smear shows severe abnormalities, doctors can operate to remove those cells and prevent cancer from developing, explains
There are many scenarios where high-risk HPV doesn’t progress into cervical cancer.
Dr Shree Chanchani, an ob-gyn and assistant clinical professor.
In other words, there are many scenarios where high-risk HPV doesn’t progress into cervical cancer, and your doctor can help you find the approach that’s right for you.
Cervical cancer is becoming more common
Not true. There’s been talk of rates rising and these probably stem from a 2017 study which found that death rates were actually 47% higher for white women and 77% higher for black women than previously believed. But that doesn’t mean cancer is on the rise – this study excluded women who’d had hysterectomies and although they were included in earlier death rates despite the fact that they were not at risk. In other words, the study offers a more accurate picture of women dying from the disease but that doesn’t mean the cancer is more dangerous or widespread than previously. Which brings us to another rumour…
Cervical cancer is deadlier for black women
Unfortunately, this is true, but not because of biological differences. The study showed that black women are nearly twice as likely to die from cervical cancer, but this is often because they are diagnosed at later stages than white women. (Researchers separated only white and black women, with one ‘other’ category for all other races, a shortcoming the study author acknowledged to GLAMOUR.)
“This is why equal access to preventive health care, like Pap smears, is so important, particularly for women who have the least access to care,” says Cecile Richards, president of a women’s health clinic. Bottom line: women of any race should get a Pap smear every three years (after age 30, it can be every five years as long as your Pap smear includes an HPV test).
You can get HPV from oral sex
Hpv-related oral, nasal and neck cancers are slightly up. Sadly, there’s no easy way to diagnose this form of HPV. “Go for annual wellness visits and don’t smoke, which is an additional risk factor for these cancers,” says Dr Brian Slomovitz, an ob-gyn who specialises in gynaecologic cancer.
You can’t get the vaccine if you’re older than 26
This myth likely started because most medical aids and insurers don’t cover the vaccine for those over 26. But you can still ask for it, and you might want to. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention recommends women and men get the vaccine starting at age 11; it’s most effective when given before HPV exposure, says Dr Slomovitz. “The reason we suggest getting vaccinated before 26 is to allow the body time to generate an immune response,” he says.
But while the vaccine may be less effective after 26, it can still protect you. Says Dr Slomovitz, “If you’ve been in a long monogamous relationship and now you’re not” – as in, you’ll have new partners – “it’s worth the cost.”