According to the American Cancer Society, about 12,900 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer this year. Another 4,100 will die from it. While this cancer used to be the leading cause of death for women in the United States, the numbers have gone down due to improved testing, vaccines, and knowledge about the cause of this cancer – human papillomavirus, otherwise known as HPV.
HPV is responsible for virtually every case of cervical cancer – and many other types of cancer as well. In total, HPV causes nearly 27,000 cases of cancer a year in the U.S. in both men and women.
The bad news is that HPV affects most people. In fact, the CDC reports that 80 percent of sexually active women and 90 percent of sexually active men will have at least one strain of HPV at some point in their lives. The good news is that many of the strains of HPV are harmless and go away on their own. However, for the high-risk strains (such as strains 16 and 18, which account for 70 percent of cervical cancers), there is more cause for concern.
The first defense against HPV is prevention, which means getting the HPV vaccine. Because HPV is so common, people often contract some form of an HPV infection shortly after they become sexually active. That is why it is so important to fully vaccinate our children with the three shots when they are young. We suggest vaccinating boys and girls for HPV by the time they turn 11 or 12.
While the current HPV vaccine works against strains 6, 11, 16, and 18, the FDA just approved a new nine-strain vaccine that also protects against five additional high-risk HPV strains and two other low-risk HPV strains. This additional coverage protects against 90 percent of the HPV infections that cause cervical cancer. It is a great protection for our children.
Even if a person is older than 11 or 12, he or she can still find some protection against those additional strains by getting the vaccine before turning 26. While the vaccine may not be as effective, it can still offer protection from some dangerous forms of HPV.
While prevention through vaccine is ideal, patients who were not vaccinated or who had already tested positive for the virus still have hope. I have many conversations with patients about how they can possibly clear HPV once they have been affected. While many strains clear on their own, others are more stubborn and, if left in the body long enough, can develop into cervical cancer.
Fortunately, cervical cancer is usually very slow growing. This gives patients a chance to try to clear HPV from their system in between pap tests. There has been some great new research that says there are activities all people can do to potentially help clear HPV. They are:
Quitting smoking. HPV 16 and 18 strains are especially responsive to chemical carcinogens in cigarette smoke that make them more likely to progress into cancer.
Eating more fruits and vegetables. Multiple studies have shown increasing folic acid, cruciferous vegetables and beta-carotene can help clear the body of HPV and decrease the progression of HPV into cervical cancer. Many of these nutrients can be found in beans, fortified cereals, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, strawberries, carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and Brussels sprouts.
Increasing consumption of antioxidants found in green tea, blueberries and spinach.
Decreasing the amount of high-estrogen foods consumed, such as soybeans, sunflower seeds, tofu, dairy and meat (except certified organic, grass-fed meat, which is lower in estrogen).
Reducing alcohol consumption.
Limiting consumption of coffee.
Getting eight hours of sleep a night.
In addition, patients who have been diagnosed with HPV should talk to their doctors about whether they should increase pap test frequency to once a year. Depending on the strain of HPV, this test enables doctors to catch most pre-cancerous activity before it turns into something more harmful. If patients have special conditions such as smoking, chronic illnesses, taking prednisone, or other immuno-suppressed disorders, they should be tested regularly to ensure that their HPV does not form into cervical cancer.
While cervical cancer can be a frightening thought, thanks to the impressive strides made in vaccines, testing, and prevention research, we can arm ourselves and our children against this devastating disease.