Busting 5 Common Myths About Cervical Cancer

When we see or hear the word “cancer,” our alarm bells start ringing. The prospect of being diagnosed with a life-altering disease understandably elicits feelings of anxiety. Combine that with the wealth of available information, both accurate and overblown, and we’re often left with more questions than answers, particularly regarding choices that could affect our health.

Consider cervical cancer as an example. Currently, Arkansas is at the bottom of the national rankings for Pap tests, a proven early detection tool, and our rates of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination. To ensure women have the facts they need to make informed decisions, Dr. Kathryn Kennedy, FACOG, gynecologic surgical oncologist at CARTI, is busting the top five myths about cervical cancer.


Myth: The cause of cervical cancer is unknown.

HPV is responsible for more than 90% of all cervical cancers. Characterized as the most common sexually transmitted infection, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states, “Almost every sexually active person will get HPV at some point if they don’t get vaccinated.” Fortunately, most people will never experience issues from the infection. Those at the highest risk of developing health problems are immunocompromised individuals. Along with HPV vaccination, people can lower their overall risk by eating a balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, avoiding nicotine products and getting enough sleep.

Myth: Cervical cancer cannot be prevented.

The most effective way for women to protect themselves against cervical cancer is the HPV vaccine. The CDC recommends all pre-teen girls and boys, approximately 11-12 years old, receive two doses, administered six months to a year apart. The CDC also suggests that teens and young adults up to 26 get the shots if they are not fully vaccinated. Adults 27-45 should speak with their health care providers about the possible benefits of vaccination, including protection against new virus strains or reduced recurrence of cervical cell changes.


Myth: If you have HPV, you will get cervical cancer.

For most people, HPV will go away on its own. Only 10% of individuals will develop long-lasting infections that put them at risk for abnormal cell changes. Think of HPV like the common cold. Most of the time, the body clears the virus relatively quickly. Other times, individuals develop complications like pneumonia, especially if they have pre-existing conditions like asthma. This may make them more vigilant about monitoring the course of their illness in the future. Because cervical cancer is slow growing, screenings can catch the disease earlier when it’s more treatable.


Myth: If you get the HPV vaccine, you don’t need to get Pap tests.

The HPV vaccine and Pap tests offer the best protection against cervical cancer. Women should also start getting Pap tests at age 21, repeating them every three years. Patients ages 30-65 should receive the Pap and HPV tests every five years. Women may need more frequent screenings if they experience abnormal Pap results or are at a higher risk for cervical cancer. Regardless of their status (e.g., sexually inactive, surgical menopause), women should talk to their doctor if they’re uncertain about when to get tested.


Myth: You don’t need to get screened for cervical cancer if you don’t have any symptoms.

Unfortunately, women generally don’t experience any warning signs of cervical cancers or pre-cancers. If individuals are presenting symptoms, the disease has likely already progressed. The most effective way to detect cervical cancer is by receiving the recommended Pap and HPV tests.


Kennedy stresses that women should always listen to their bodies. If they feel like something is “off” or are concerned about their risks of developing cervical or other gynecologic cancers, they should speak to a health care provider. 

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