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Preventing Cervical Cancer One Vaccine at a Time

January 20, 2020
The benefits of taking birth control are well documented. It prevents unwanted pregnancy and can help regulate female hormones. However, the risks regarding the use of birth control and its correlation to cervical cancer are a little less clear, says Dr. Kimberly Levinson, MD, MPH, who is the director of the John Hopkins Gynecologic Oncology department at GBMC HealthCare.

"There's a lot of mixed data about it [the use of birth control associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer]," she explains. "There are some studies that show an increased risk over time. There are others that show no increased risk over time."

Dr. Levinson says there is one common factor in every cervical cancer diagnosis: the presence of human papillomavirus (HPV).

Kimberly Levinson, MD, MPH - Genecologic Oncology
Kimberly L. Levinson, MD, MPH
"You need to have the HPV virus to develop cervical cancer. Patients without HPV do not have the risk," she says.

She says the studies that have been done on birth control and its correlation to cervical cancer are retrospective in nature. This kind of backward analysis makes it impossible to define if birth control is the specific thing that causes the cancer or decreases the risk.

"There's some data that suggests that certain intrauterine devices (IUDs) can lower the risk of cervical cancer, but we just don't have enough evidence to say yes, this is the reason," Dr. Levinson says.

Dr. Levinson explains that women who want to prevent cervical cancer should focus less on the potential risks involved with their birth control and more on factors that will actually influence their chances of contracting the illness.

"We do know what decreases the risk of cervical cancer," she explains. "Two things: HPV vaccination and screening. We want to prevent HPV from being contracted or catch these changes before they become something bad. Whether someone is on birth control or not, if we can identify the changes early and do something about them, we have the ability to prevent this disease."

Screening protocols for HPV and cervical cancer vary based on age. For women under the age of 30, Pap smear screening is the standard, mostly because HPV is so prevalent in that population, says Dr. Levinson.

"We know that HPV takes a really long time to make changes that lead to cancer, usually over the course of ten years."

She adds that most women under 30 clear the disease with no issue, but it's important to stay on top of suggested guidelines for screening with your gynecologist, in case any discrepancies appear.

"There are really not any symptoms for cervical cancer until the disease is late stage. That is why screening is so important," Dr. Levinson explains.

Dr. Levinson says the risk of HPV isn't reserved for the female population; men are also at risk.

"Herd immunity is an important thing, and the more people that we can vaccinate and get rid of this virus then we will affect populations," she says.

Dr. Levinson tries as often as she can to stress the importance of getting the HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer.

"Please think about the HPV vaccine as a cure for cancer. When people get the HPV vaccine, it prevents people from getting HPV disease, which prevents cervical cancer and any cancer caused by the HPV virus. This is the way to prevent those cancers, simply with this vaccine."
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