If Pap Tests Prevent Cervical Cancer, Why Vaccinate Your Daughter?
By Alanna Kennedy-Gorman
Cervical cancer rates in the United States are relatively low: The National Cancer Institute estimates that in 2012 about 12,000 Americans will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and about 4,200 will die of the disease. These low incidence and death figures are due largely to the widespread availability since 1943 of the Pap test, which can detect precancerous cervical cells. Since the 1950s, the death rate in the U.S. has dropped by nearly 70 percent.
After a woman receives an abnormal Pap result, her health care provider can perform a biopsy and remove the abnormal tissue before it turns cancerous. But removing precancerous cells won’t stop future abnormalities from developing, and a woman with a persistent HPV infection may need many biopsies over the course of her life. That comes with certain risks. The procedures used to remove abnormal tissue can weaken the cervix, explains Mark H. Einstein, a gynecologic oncologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, and a weak cervix increases a woman’s risk of pre-term birth.
It’s a fear that sticks with some patients. “Every time I have a procedure, in the back of my mind, I wonder, ‘Is this the one that’s going to keep me from being able to carry to term?’ ” says Allison Cunningham, a special education teacher from Westampton, N.J. Cunningham was 19 when she was diagnosed with HPV after an abnormal Pap. Now 29, she’s had six cervical biopsies. “There is a level of anxiety that goes with having HPV. I wish the vaccine was around when I was a teenager. I would have gotten vaccinated.”