Dead at 33. Girls, women, be warned.

Posted: March 4, 2016 in Science
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Sarah Tait (L) alongside rowing partner Kate Hornsey. Photo: Getty Images.

Olympian Sarah Tait (L) alongside rowing partner Kate Hornsey. Photo: Getty Images.


When it comes to breast cancer and skin cancer prevention, you know the drill: Feel yourself up to make sure there are no unwanted guests and spot check your bod for any suspicious activity. But there’s another sneaky cancer you should keep tabs on just as much — and this one’s not so easy to spot.

800 new cases are diagnosed annually, according to Cancer Australia. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually-transmitted virus so common that almost all sexually active women will get it at some point in their lives.

And here’s the kicker: most women with cervical cancer have no signs or symptoms of the disease, says David Cohn, M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology and director of gynecologic cancer research at Ohio State University.


cervical cancer postop


What makes this cancer super tricky is that symptoms don’t start cropping up until the disease has already progressed, and those can include watery or bloody vaginal discharge, spotting after sex or exercise, and periods that may be heavier and longer lasting than normal. And some of those symptoms can be ignored.

That’s the bad news. The good news is cervical cancer is the easiest gynecologic cancer to prevent. In fact, there are plenty of things you can do to protect yourself. Here, five prevention tips that could save your life – and the biggest one is quite simply, don’t wait till you think you may have symptoms!

1. Get Screened

The most important thing you can do is get a pap test regularly. “There’s a significant risk for the development of cervical cancer if a woman doesn’t get screened for the disease as recommended,” says Cohn. “Many women with cervical cancer have not had cervical cancer screening in the 10 years prior to diagnosis. The earlier the diagnosis is made, the higher the rate of cure.”

Typically, women should start getting pap tests at age 21. Women between the ages of 21 and 29 should have a pap test done at least every three years, while women between 30 and 65 should have both a pap and HPV test done every five years.

2. Get Vaccinated

One step before cervical cancer prevention is protecting yourself against HPV, says Cohn. Luckily, vaccines are available that can protect against the HPV subtypes that have been linked to cervical cancer. (They are now part of the standard vaccination regime for Australian teenage girls.) Women aged 13 to 26 who haven’t been vaccinated need to get “catch-up” vaccinations. That said, they don’t help combat an infection that’s already there. That’s why regular pap tests are so vitally important.

3. Have Safe Sex

Besides lack of screening, a good portion of other risk factors relate to HPV exposure, says Cohn. Statistically speaking, women who start having sex at a younger age and have multiple sexual partners will face more exposure. While more partners equals more exposure, don’t think monogamy gets you off the hook: it’s still possible to end up with HPV even if you’re only sleeping with one person.

Contracting other STDs, such as chlamydia or gonorrhea, also ups your risk of HPV. It all points to the same message: the best thing you can do is practice safe sex by always – always! – using barrier protection, such as condoms. Having sex means the risk factor will always be there, but the more vigilant you are, the better.

4. Stop Smoking

Ditching cigarettes can help prevent an HPV-related infection from morphing into cervical cancer, says Cohn. When you smoke, the nasty chemicals are absorbed through the lungs and carried in the bloodstream throughout your bod. According to the ACS, women who smoke are twice as likely as non-smokers to get cervical cancer. Plus, smoking messes with your immune system, making it harder to fight off an HPV infection.

5. Be Aware of Your Family History

If your mother or sis had cervical cancer, your chances of developing it are two to three times higher, according to the ACS. Obviously, you don’t have control over your family history, but you do have control over how often you’re screened and how well you’re protected against HPV.

“Since there’s a long time between the development of the precursors to cervical cancer and developing the disease, detection of precursors — and then treatment— will prevent cervical cancer,” says Cohn.

Don’t die for the sake of a pap smear. That’s the essential message.

As the Australian public health message says, “A little bit of awkward for a whole lot of peace of mind.”

  1. Jen Hill says:

    Sarah Tait had received the hpv vaccine. Guaranteed she would still be here if she had never gotten it.


    • Stephen Yolland says:

      That is the most idiotic, cruel and stupid comment we have ever received on this blog.

      Myths and facts about HPV and the vaccine

      MYTH: HPV only affects females.

      FACT: Both males and females can get HPV. It’s very common – 4 out of 5 people have HPV at some point in their lives.

      Although cervical cancer is the most common type of cancer caused by HPV, persistent infection is also known to cause penile and anal cancers affecting men.

      The HPV vaccine protects against 70% of cervical cancers, however it also provides protection against most of the genital cancers in men caused by HPV infection. Additionally, the vaccine protects against 90% of genital warts in both women and men.

      As with any vaccine, the HPV vaccine may not fully protect everyone who is vaccinated and does not protect against all HPV types.

      MYTH: The vaccine wasn’t properly tested and hasn’t been proven to prevent HPV-related cancers.

      FACT: In initial clinical trials, the vaccine was given to 20,000 women aged 16–26 years in 33 countries including Australia, before it was approved for widespread use.

      These trials showed the vaccine is almost 100 per cent effective in preventing abnormalities in cells in the cervix caused by high-risk HPV types 16 and 18. These abnormalities are a proven pre-cursor to cervical cancer.

      Further clinical trials involving more than 4,000 males aged 16–26 years from 18 countries showed the vaccine was 90 per cent effective in preventing genital warts and abnormalities associated with penile cancer, and 78 per cent effective in preventing anal disease, caused by HPV types 6, 11, 16 and 18.

      MYTH: I’m not sexually active yet, so I don’t need the vaccine.

      FACT: You may not be thinking about being sexually active yet, however the vaccine works best if it is given before exposure to HPV – that is, before sexual activity commences.

      The vaccine also works best when given at a younger age. Research shows that younger people create more antibodies to the vaccine than those aged in their late teens. This means they are better protected if they are exposed to HPV in the future.

      MYTH: Only people who have multiple sexual partners get HPV.

      FACT: You can be infected with HPV from one sexual partner, the first time you are sexually active. Condoms offer some but not total protection from HPV, as they don’t cover all of the genital skin. They do offer protection from many other sexually transmitted infections though, and help prevent unwanted pregnancies.

      MYTH: Having the vaccine at a young age leads to promiscuity.

      FACT: There is no evidence that boys and girls who receive the vaccine have sex earlier than those who do not have the vaccine, and nor do they have more sexual partners once they became sexually active. Vaccination is a normal part of growing up, with the vast majority of children vaccinated at school.

      MYTH: The HPV vaccine causes more serious side effects than other vaccines.

      FACT: Over 205 million doses of the Gardasil vaccine have been distributed worldwide as of 31 December 2015 and all adverse reactions are monitored and investigated.

      All vaccines can have side effects. The reactions that people have had after the HPV vaccine have been similar to reactions from other vaccines. The most common side effects are pain, redness and/or swelling at the site of injection.

      Very rarely, more serious side effects such as anaphylactic (allergic) reaction can occur, usually if you are allergic to an ingredient in the vaccine such as yeast.

      All people are monitored for 15 minutes after having the vaccine. If an allergic reaction does occur, it can be treated quickly and successfully – every immunisation provider is trained and equipped to deal with such a reaction.

      MYTH: The vaccine can give you the virus and cause cancer.

      FACT: The vaccine cannot cause cancer or any other HPV-related diseases.

      When you have the vaccine, your body makes antibodies which it uses to fight the real virus if you’re ever exposed to it.


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