Can We Call a Cease Fire to Cervical Cancer? The HPV Vaccine

Admission….despite endless years of schooling, training, and then more training, there is a lot that doctors don’t know. We wish we did, because inherently it is in our nature to heal and to fix, but unfortunately, there are many questions in medicine that remain unanswered. Despite our fancy tools (and trust us, there are a lot!), we still lack that crystal ball. And not only can we not diagnose everything, but we also don’t always know why somebody gets a disease. The latter is super frustrating.

How does the woman who eats only organic, exercises daily, and has never smoked get breast cancer? How does the man who has never eaten at McDonalds and spends two hours a day on his treadmill have a heart attack? It simply does not make sense. Therefore, what we do know and what we can stop we want to share or, rather, shout as loud as possible! We want to make sure you know what you can do to decrease your risk, to stay healthy, and to prevent a bad event.

While most cancers are not preventable, for the most part, cervical cancer is. The majority of cervical cancer is caused by a virus (the human papillomavirus, or HPV): not the same virus that causes the common cold or a stomach bug but a virus that can infect the cervix and, if not treated over several years, lead to cervical cancer. Now, just like there are many different types of viruses that can ultimately lead to the same end point (e.g., the common cold), there are different strains of the HPV virus (120 to be exact!). And again, in the same vein as the common cold, some strains are going to knock you on your behind more than others.

So while there are 120 different viruses, about 40 HPV types (medically called genotypes) are sexually transmitted, and 13 have been shown to cause cervical cancer. And to whittle it down even further, about 70% of all cases of cervical cancer are caused by two HPV genotypes, 16 and 18, and 90% of genital warts are caused by HPV genotypes 6 and 11. Therefore, if you can avoid ever being infected with HPV, you will nearly eliminate your chances of getting cervical cancer. Additionally, because regular Pap smears will almost always pick up abnormalities on their way to cervical cancer, if you do get or are infected with HPV and develop cervical abnormalities (a.k.a. abnormal Pap smears), good screening and frequent visits to your gynecologist can ensure a bad thing doesn’t get worse.

But pap smears and the further testing that is required (colposcopy, LEEP, and the cold knife cone) when one is abnormal can be really scary (these procedures can translate into taking off a piece of your cervix). Additionally, it can become a tedious chore (you have to be seen every six months, and who has time for that?). If cervical surgery is required, it can put you at risk for a preterm delivery in the future. By avoiding an infection with HPV, you could avoid a trip on this unhappy merry go round. Although abstinence would do the trick, while we are mothers, we are not ignorant! From teens on up, girls are going to have sex; we do our best to educate and advise, but it’s going to happen. Therefore, the next best thing to do is to prevent the transmission of HPV. This can be done by a vaccination—just as we prevent the measles, the mumps, and polio through a vaccine, we can now prevent the spread of HPV. By vaccinating girls (and boys!), ideally before their first sexual encounter, we can significantly reduce the incidence of cervical cancer, anogenital cancers, oropharyngeal cancer, and cervical warts (now, that’s one heck of a shopping list—not one thing on there we would like to acquire!).

So currently there are two vaccines that have been approved by the FDA to work in preventing HPV infection. One protects against the big four genotypes of HPV (6, 11, 16, 18), while the other only protects against two genotypes of HPV (16 and 18). The latter is only approved for administration in females while the former (four) is approved for administration in females and males. The good news is this: if either is given in the right way—three doses, six months apart in girls (and boys) between the ages of 9–26 years old before they have been sexually active—it works really well. Under these guidelines, it’s nearly 100% effective.

In order to hit all these points, you need to start vaccinating girls (and guys) at a young age. In fact, the target age to start is 11 or 12 years old. If you miss the window and sexual activity starts before you start vaccinating (or you don’t start vaccinating until a later age), it is still worth a shot! While you may have already been infected with HPV, it could be just one strain (let’s say 6). That means that, while the vaccine won’t protect you from 6 or the goodies that come along with it (hello, genital warts), it will protect you from other strains (those that cause cervical cancer). So roll up your sleeve, and start the series, because it is still worth it.

Points worth mentioning…the vaccine can be given to girls as young as 9 and as old as 26; the window is large enough that you shouldn’t miss it. If you are late for a shot (say, you forget to come in 1–2 months after the first dose and roll into your GYN at month three) you are still okay to proceed. Once you start the series, no matter how long it is paused, you can finish it.

The only exception is pregnancy. While there is no definitive data to show that the vaccine is harmful in pregnancy, OB/GYNs recommend waiting to finish the vaccine series until your nine months are up. Breastfeeding women have the all clear to take the vaccine, as the HPV vaccine is inactivated (no live virus).

It’s a small price or “prick” to pay to protect yourself against cervical cancer and genital warts. Neither is pleasant, and we can assure you won’t be missed by anyone. While you still need Pap smears and still need to visit your OB/GYN for checkups, you can check some pretty unpleasant gynecologic conditions off your list if you follow the schedule. Despite the negative hype, vaccines are sort of amazing; we don’t get polio, we don’t get the measles. Now (if done in the way it’s prescribed), we won’t get HPV. This is just another example of how preventative medicine can be effective. So take yourself or your daughter and/or son to the OB/GYN. You don’t want to miss your window, for many women won’t get another chance.

Pap Smears, Pelvics, and Plenty of Good Advice

Most of us associate Pap smears with the OB/GYN. A light goes off in our head, usually around the same time every year, that says, “You need a Pap.” After you make sure to get a bikini wax and shave your legs (we do it too, but we promise your GYN does not care!), you book your appointment, and off you go. When you get there, you might be surprised when your OB/GYN, or GYN-O, as we know many of you like to call us, conducts nothing more than a pelvic exam, a physical exam, and a good old-fashioned chat. You may be thinking, has she/he developed a case of memory loss and forgotten that I need a Pap? And although we may be super tired from that delivery the night before (yes, we work a lot of nights!), no, we have not lost our minds. Pap smear guidelines have changed a lot over the past 10 years, and most women no longer require yearly Pap smears. Pap smear recommendations change faster than Kim K changes husbands. It’s sort of hard to keep up. And we don’t expect you to. But what we can tell you is that things have loosened up a lot (unlike Kim K’s clothes!). We are less aggressive with what we biopsy and what we remove. We Pap less frequently, and we watch and monitor a lot more. And while we want to see you and hear what’s up in your life, we want to see your cervix a bit less.

For starters, we no longer perform Pap smears on anyone under the age of 21 (regardless of when they started to have sex). While it is a good idea to visit a GYN at about 15 years of age, Pap smears are no longer part of this visit. Data demonstrated that testing such young women did more harm than good (meaning invasive procedures due to abnormal results that would have gone away on their own). Furthermore, after the first Pap smear (if all looks good), we won’t invite your cervix back for another three years. Pap smears can be performed every three years in women between the ages of 21–30 if they are totally negative. And get this: if you are between the ages of 30–65, your Paps are normal, and your HPV (human papillomavirus) test is negative (called co-testing), then we don’t need to see that cervix for five years! If you opt for just the Pap smear, then we need to see you every three years. While we still want to see you and dish on what happened last year, we don’t need to do a Pap smear if the above guidelines are met. Once you start to collect Social Security (age 65), if you have never had any high-grade cervical abnormalities (HGSIL), you can say adios to another Pap smear. The only time the above rules don’t apply (at all) are women who are HIV+ or have severely weakened immune systems. Furthermore, if your Pap smear has been abnormal and your biopsies have come back abnormal, you will be on a totally different plan.

The screening intervals have been spaced out, not because insurance companies are trying to save money (although that is usually the right answer) but because, in reality, most cases of cervical cancer occur in women who were never screened or who were not screened well—not women who were screened by guidelines. If you follow the rules, it’s very rare that you will get burned. Cervical cancer development is slower than the slowest tortoise in a tortoise-and-hare race. It usually takes years and years and years (about 10) for an HPV infection (the most common precursor) to develop into cancer. In many ways, HPV and cervical abnormalities/dysplasia/cancer are the opposite of the chicken and the egg. While both are always seen together, in this case, we know who came first! HPV, specifically subtypes 16 and 18, cause the majority of cervical issues, including cancer. Interestingly, while most of us will contract HPV in our teens/early 20s (about 70% of sexually active college-age women have or have had HPV), most of us will clear it by the time we hit our middle to late 20s and 30s. Most women younger than 21 will clear the HPV infection in eight months. In fact, the majority of HPV infections have said hasta luego two years after they landed on your cervix.

It is when we hit the big 3-0 that things start to change and the HPV infections that are there are more likely to stay there. It is for this reason that HPV co-testing is only done in women older than 30; by this point, if it is still present, we are way more concerned. HPV testing can also be used to sort out if a mildly abnormal (medical term “ASCUS” on the Pap smear report) needs to be investigated further. If the HPV is positive, the situation is way more serious than if the HPV is negative.

Many of us are grade obsessed, number fanatics, and goal oriented. We are not much different when it comes to our health. So here is what those grades mean. Generally speaking, Pap smear reports can be thought of as negative (a.k.a. normal) or abnormal. This may be the one time you want to be negative! The abnormals are like college kids living in New York City after they graduate. That one-bedroom apartment is subdivided in a million different ways to house many and cut costs. Pap smear reports will report on a bunch of things. However, what you are most likely to hear about are the squamous cell abnormalities (these are the main cells that make up the cervix and can become cancerous!). Squamous cell abnormalities can fall into one of the following categories:

  • Atypical squamous cells (ASCs of undetermined significance = ASCUS or ASC. We cannot rule out more serious abnormalities)
  • Low-grade intra-epithelial lesions (LGIL or CIN 1)
  • High-grade intra-epithelial lesions (HGSIL or CIN 2 or CIN 3).

As you walk up the stairs, the abnormalities become more significant. You are climbing closer and closer to cancer. It is for this reason that the interventions become more and more serious; you may go from an office-based biopsy (medically termed colposcopy) to a procedure where we cut out a portion of the cervix (LEEP or cold knife cone). While Pap smears have the ability to tell you even more than we listed above (such as cellular changes suggestive of an infection, the presence of endometrial cells and glandular cells), these are much less likely. We have backed off big time with the screening, not because we want to see more badness, but because we want to prevent badness. Excisional cervical procedures increase the risk of preterm labor/preterm delivery. The cervix is there, at the end of the uterus, to keep things closed until it’s go time. If there is only a sliver of cervix left, it is going to have a hard time doing its job. By avoiding unnecessary procedures in young women who will most likely clear the HPV infection and the cervical cell abnormalities, we avoid future fertility issues.

Breaking news: if you are young enough (we are not!) to have received the HPV vaccine, that does not mean you don’t need Pap smears or cervical screening. HPV vaccine is like a really good insurance policy. However, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be caught in a bad flood or have a house fire. You still need cervical screening and should follow the same age-appropriate guidelines.

The yearly trip to the OB/GYN is usually met with the same feeling we have when going to the dentist. Yes, you have to do it but are always a little afraid to hear what they have to say. Most of the time, it’s good. You get the all clear and don’t need to worry until the next year. Even if you don’t need that Pap smear, you do need to go to the doctor. While we don’t clean teeth, we don’t check your vision, and we don’t check your hearing, we do make sure that your female organs are A-ok. Make sure when you do get a Pap smear you write down the results and keep it with your most treasured items (Grandma’s earrings, Mom’s ring, your first lock of hair). That way you will not only know what’s up, but also if you move or move away from your OB/GYN, you will know what happened in the past. You don’t need to understand the grades or know when Kim gets divorced and remarried (that is, the Pap smear guidelines change), but you should be the master of your own medical records. It will cut down on a lot of unnecessary testing.