According to the American Cancer Society, there will be more than 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer diagnosed this year in the United States alone, making it the third most common cancer in women. The disease forms slowly, but has very few symptoms in early stages.

The No. 1 risk factor in developing cervical cancer — the human papilloma virus, or HPV.

This virus, which can also cause genital warts, comes in more than 100 different strains of varying degree. About 40 of these strains can affect the genital area, potentially leading to cervical cancer.

The bad news?

Genital HPV infection is very common among sexually active people. It is so common, in fact, that some estimate that half of all men and three quarters of all women have been infected with HPV at some point in their lifetime.

The good news?

Most HPV infections will go away on their own without treatment within one to two years. However, some will continue to “hide” in the body for many years before they cause problems. This makes it nearly impossible to determine when patients became infected with the disease, how long they’ve had it and who gave it to them.

Thankfully, women have two powerful tools in the fight against HPV and cervical cancer — PAP tests and vaccination.

PAP Tests

All women should have PAP testing done to detect early precancerous changes on the cervix.

A PAP test, which is not painful to the patient, is done by a clinician inserting a metal or plastic speculum into the vagina, which is opened slowly to allow the clinician to visualize the cervix — the opening to the uterus. The clinician then uses a small brush and/or spatula to gently collect cells from the cervix. The cells are then sent to the laboratory to be tested for abnormalities. The lab test does not test for HPV itself, but rather looks for cellular changes that may be caused by HPV.

In the United States alone, the death rate from cervical cancer declined by 70 percent between 1955 and 1992 because of the initiation of the PAP test. The current recommendation for PAP testing is that it begins at the age of 21, regardless of when women first started having sexual intercourse. PAP testing prior to the age of 21 often will lead to continued unnecessary testing or procedures.

HPV Vaccine

Many women ask what they can do to protect themselves against HPV infection and cervical cancer. If one is between the ages of nine and 26, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a vaccination against certain strains of HPV that are more likely to cause genital warts and cervical cancer. This vaccination is given in a series of three injections over a six-month period.

Other ways to reduce one’s risk include:

  • Practicing abstinence
  • Having only one sexual partner who has no other intimate partners
  • Having sexual contact that does not involve anal or vaginal intercourse
  • Using condoms every time

Be sure to contact your healthcare provider, public health department or local Planned Parenthood health center for more information about cervical cancer and the importance of a proactive screening strategy and PAP testing.