With screening and preventative steps, you can minimize your risk for cervical cancer.

There’s nothing good about a cancer diagnosis. (Understatement of the century.) But one silver lining of cervical cancer is that it’s one of the most successfully treatable cancers, according to the American Cancer Society, particularly when it’s discovered early.

Cervical cancer is cancer of the cells that line the cervix, which is the lower section of the uterus (and includes where the vagina and the uterus meet). It occurs most commonly in women between the ages of 20 and 50.

In the last 40 years, the rate of cervical cancer deaths has dropped more than 50 percent. The pap smear, which has grown in popularity over the years, is part of the reason for this decline. A pap smear may not only detect cancer in its early stages, but it can even identify pre-cancerous changes in the cervix.

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But there are several ways to minimize your risk as well. In addition to quitting smoking, eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, and staying at a healthy weight, practicing safe sex is essential — particularly when it comes to HPV.

That’s because just two high-risk types of HPV are responsible for two-thirds of all cervical cancer cases. Minimize your risk of HPV, and you incidentally minimize your risk of cervical cancer.

One of the easiest ways to avoid HPV — and therefore cervical cancer — is to get the HPV vaccine. It helps prevent the transmission of those two high-risk types of HPV linked to cervical cancer (among others). The younger you are when you receive it, the more effective the vaccine is.

“Since infection with HPV is responsible for the vast majority of cervical cancer (as well as a significant number of vulvar, vaginal, anal and throat cancers), the HPV vaccine is likely to drastically reduce the risk of cervical cancer in the upcoming years, much more so than can be achieved with pap smears alone,” said Lynda D. Roman, MD, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and a gynecologic oncologist at Keck Medicine of USC. “The data so far have shown a dramatic reduction in precancers in vaccinated women as well as an excellent safety profile.

“We all look forward to the day that we never need to see a women prematurely lose her fertility, if not her life, to this disease.”

And, of course, it’s essential to get pap smears as recommended by your physician (the timing depends on your age and your medical history). It easily identifies suspicious or deformed cells long before they become malignant, and takes just minutes. So if you can’t remember the last time you visited your gynecologist or women’s health provider, it’s worth scheduling an appointment. After all, better safe than sorry.

With these steps, you can lower your risk for cervical cancer. And it’s worth going to the extra mile when your health is on the line. Cervical cancer may be treatable, especially when it’s caught early, but it’s still serious business — and worth avoiding at all costs.

By Deanna Pai

As one of the eight original National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the United States, USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center at Keck Medicine of USC is one of the preeminent academic medical institutions in the country. If you are in the Los Angeles area, make an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visiting https://cancer.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/.