Health Watch -- Cervical Cancer

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Health Watch is a Public Service of the Office of News and Publications and is intended to provide general information only and should not replace the advice of a medical professional. You should contact your physician if you have questions about any of these topics.
P racticing safe sex is one way to protect yourself against cancer.

More than 12,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society. More than 4,000 women will die of the disease. Doctors at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas say cautious sexual practices may help you avoid this kind of cancer.

That's because more than 95 percent of cervical cancer cases are linked to the human papilloma virus, or HPV. This virus is transmitted through sexual contact. Exposure is common, especially in women under the age of 30. There usually aren't any symptoms of HPV infection, and there's no treatment to cure this viral infection. Although HPV is associated with the majority of cervical cancer cases, most women with HPV don't develop cancer or precancerous lesions.

Dr. Carolyn Muller, a gynecologic cancer specialist at UT Southwestern, says you can lower your risk for exposure to HPV by limiting your number of sexual partners. You should also be careful about having sex with anyone who has had a large number of partners. Using a condom may reduce your risk for exposure, but it doesn't eliminate it entirely.

The best screening tool for cervical cancer is a Pap smear. Dr. Muller says this should be done every year in young women.  This test detects any lesions that might become cancerous, even before they actually develop into cancer.

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June 2004

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