How to Reduce HPV Related Cancer Risks
There are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk of developing HPV-related cancer. These include reducing your modifiable risk factors as much as possible, opting for regular Pap tests if you are a woman, and getting vaccinated if you are eligible for one of the new HPV vaccines. It is also important to understand how HPV can specifically affect men as well as women.
Reducing Risk Factors
Consider your number of sexual partners.One of the biggest risk factors for HPV related cancers is your number of sexual partners and, in particular, high risk sexual partners. This is because you must have one of the specific cancer-predisposing strains of HPV, which is a sexually transmitted infection, in order to (down the road) develop an HPV related cancer.
- The more sexual partners you have in your life, the greater your chance of contracting one of the cancer-predisposing strains of HPV.
- Also, the more sexual partners that the person you are having sex with has had, the "higher risk" they are as a partner because they then carry a heightened risk of being infected themselves.
- In a few years, as many as 50% of people may be infected by the virus.
Practice safe sex.Since sexual intercourse (and skin-to-skin contact of the genitals) is the way in which HPV is passed from one person to another, safe sexual practices is key as a way to reduce your risk of developing HPV related cancer. Your best bet is to always use a condom, to reduce the amount of genital contact and bodily fluids exchanged between you and your partner.
- Note that men who have sex with men are at higher risk. This is a risk factor to be aware of; however, it is one that cannot be changed as you cannot change your sexuality.
- People who have other health problems leading to a compromised immune system (such as those with HIV/AIDS) are also at higher risk.
- For men, there are no symptoms of HPV and testing is more difficult. Just because someone says they don't think they have it doesn't mean it is true. Practice safe sex at all times.
Quit smoking.Smoking is a risk factor for many cancers, including HPV-related cancers. Therefore, if you can quit smoking, you will effectively reduce your risk. If you are interested in quitting smoking and would like support, book an appointment with your family doctor.
- Your family doctor can offer you nicotine replacement options to help to tame your cravings as you quit smoking.
- Your doctor may also offer you medications (such as Wellbutrin or Bupropion) that can be helpful in the process of quitting smoking.
Treat any other sexually transmitted infections or diseases.If you have any other infections or diseases, such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea, herpes, HIV, or AIDS, your risk of becoming infected with HPV goes up. This is because your immune system is busy handling other infections, and thus less able to prevent HPV.
- Ask your doctor for regular infection and disease testing, as some infections and diseases can take months to show up. Be sure to treat any infections or diseases immediately.
- This will optimize your sexual health and reduce your risk of HPV and subsequent HPV-related cancers.
Be aware of other risk factors for HPV-related cancers.For reasons that are not completely understood by the medical community, people who do not have children are at higher risk for contracting HPV-related cancers. Also, non-sexually active females who then begin to have sex are at the highest risk.
- Another risk factor for HPV related cancers is DES (Diethylstilbestrol).
- This is a hormonal drug that used to be given in hopes of preventing miscarriage; it is no longer prescribed by physicians due to the risk.
Optimize your overall health.Maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables, and decreasing overall stress have all been correlated to better health and to a reduced risk of developing cancer, including HPV related cancers. Prioritize your overall health and well being, and you will reap the benefits down the road.
Receiving Regular Pap Tests
Receive regular Pap screening starting at age 21.In order to reduce your risk of HPV-related cancer (in this case, cervical cancer, which is caused by HPV), it is important to see your family doctor for regular Pap tests beginning at the age of 21, and every 3 years thereafter (more frequently if an abnormality is detected). The purpose of the Pap test is to take a sample of cells from around your cervix, which will subsequently be examined under the microscope to look for any abnormalities that could be indicative of or concerning for cancer.
- A new test that is becoming available is something called "HPV co-testing."
- HPV co-testing may be done when you get your Pap test. What it does is it looks specifically for the presence of the HPV virus (as opposed to simply looking for abnormal cells that may be cancerous or precancerous).
- Because the HPV co-testing option is relatively new, there are no definitive guidelines around it yet.
- If you receive HPV co-testing with your Pap test, you may be able to prolong your screening interval from every 3 years to every 5 years.
Know what to expect when you go for a Pap test.When you receive a Pap test, a speculum (a plastic or metal device) is inserted into your vagina. The speculum is then opened so that your doctor can centre it around your cervix, and a sample of cells is then taken from your cervix.
- The cell sample will be sent into the lab for formal analysis under the microscope.
- When your doctor hears back about your results, he or she will let you know whether they are normal, or whether any further investigations or repeat testing are needed.
- Note that it is best to plan your Pap test for a time when you are not on your period. Having your period may cloud the results, and you may need to come back in for a repeat test, so it is best to simply avoid doing it while on your period altogether.
Follow up with any concerning results as directed by your physician.If your Pap test does come back with concerning or suspicious results, you may need to have another Pap test in the near future. If your results are highly suspicious, or if you get 2 abnormal results in a row, your doctor may proceed to something called "colposcopy," which is where an instrument is used to directly visualize your cervix to get a more clear picture of what is going on.
- The doctor may take a small sample the skin around the cervix to test it.
- Being diligent around going for Pap tests and any follow up tests as needed will play a huge role in reducing your risk of HPV related cancers.
- Prevention and early detection are key, as most HPV related cancers can be effectively treated and oftentimes cured if caught early enough.
See if you are eligible to receive the HPV vaccine.The HPV vaccine is relatively new and is currently available to women under the age of 26, and to men who fall into "high risk" categories. It is ideal to receive the vaccine at age 11 or 12 (this is the age group for which it is generally recommended). This is to ensure that the vaccine is administered well before the onset of sexual activity, as this is what makes it most effective.
- Females should always take a pregnancy test before receiving the vaccine, and should not receive the vaccine if they are pregnant.
- There are some doctors who will not give the HPV vaccine to older women. This is because the person has probably been in contact with some type of the virus by this age, making the vaccine ineffective.
- Note, however, that it is better to get it even after you have had sex as it still diminishes your risk, just not as much as if you had received it earlier.
- Note that the HPV vaccine cannot cure HPV that is already present, nor can it cure lesions of the cervix that may be precursors for cervical cancer (or lesions elsewhere that may be precursors for HPV related cancer).
Understand what the HPV vaccine protects you against.In addition to cervical cancer, women can also get vulvar cancer, anal cancer, and oral cancer all related to HPV. The vaccine (particularly if received early enough in life) works to protect you against all of these HPV related cancers.
- The HPV vaccine has proven to be highly effective with little to no side effects.
Choose between Gardasil and Cervarix.There are currently 2 HPV vaccines available, Gardasil and Cervarix. Gardasil covers against 4 strains of HPV, namely, strains 6, 11, 16, and 18. In this way, it is protective against the strains of HPV that predispose you to cervical cancer (and to other HPV-related cancers), as well as being protective against the strains of HPV that cause genital warts, which is an added bonus of this vaccine. Cervarix is the other vaccine option. It covers for HPV strains 16 and 18, so it is protective against HPV-related cancers (particularly cervical cancer) but not against genital warts.
- Both Gardasil and Cervarix require 3 vaccines in total.
- The second shot is received 1-2 months after the first, and the third shot is received 6 months after the first.
- All 3 shots must be received for the vaccine to have optimum efficacy.
Continue with regular Pap tests even if you have been vaccinated.Because the vaccine is relatively new and medical researchers do not yet have enough data to determine exactly how effective it is, it is recommended to continue with Pap tests as per usual even if you have been vaccinated.
- With time and as more evidence around the vaccine's effectiveness becomes available, Pap test screening recommendations may be reduced for women who have been vaccinated. However, there have been no alterations to the screening guidelines to date.
Reducing HPV Related Cancer Risk in Men
Know which HPV related cancers men are at risk for.Although HPV related cancers are most commonly thought of in association to women (as cervical cancer in women is by far the most prevalent HPV related cancer), men can be affected as well. The HPV related cancers that may affect men include penile cancer, anal cancer, and oral cancer.
Get immunized if you are at higher risk.The Gardasil vaccine is currently recommended for men who have sex with men, and for men whose immune systems are otherwise compromised (such as those with HIV/AIDS, organ transplants, or other severe autoimmune conditions).
- The vaccine is not currently recommended for men in general, due to the overall low risk of men getting HPV-related cancers, so current guidelines suggest it only for higher risk groups.
See a physician if you notice any suspicious signs or symptoms.For men and women alike, if you notice any unusual lumps or bumps around your anal area, your oral area, or (for men) on your penis, it is important to have these looked at by a doctor. This way, you can rule out the possibility of cancer (or have your doctor diagnose it and treat it in the earliest stage possible, while it is still curable).
- HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that is difficult to detect. There are those who get warts, but also those that have no symptoms (like itching, burning, or discharge) at all.
- The only fail-safe way to prevent HPV is by having only 1 partner and beginning your relationship as virgins.
Video: The Relationship Between HPV and Cervical Cancer
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