At my eleven-year-old daughter’s annual checkup, our doctor talked to us about getting the vaccine that prevents cervical cancer. We also discussed the need for my fourteen-year–old son to get one. I had a lot of questions, both as a mother and as a woman. January is Cervical Health Awareness Month — the perfect time to ask those questions, learn more and get answers.

Cervical cancer is a silent killer. Human papillomavirus virus or HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that causes almost all cervical cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, HPV infection is very common, and more than one-half of people who are sexually active will be infected with some strain of HPV. Women rarely see symptoms until the later stages; however, the virus can be detected through a screening called the Pap test. When found early, treatment is highly effective. It is important to know that not all strains of HPV cause cervical cancer — two strains of HPV are the cause of most cervical cancer.

Most recently, getting vaccinated against HPV is recommended for girls and boys from 11 to 12 years of age (also, females 13 – 26 and males 13 – 21 who haven’t already completed vaccinations). HPV vaccines are most effective if administered before exposure to the virus through sexual activity. Since the vaccine was approved in 2006, there has already been more than a 50 percent drop in the spread of HPV in young women.

While medical advancements have led to a big decline in deaths from cervical cancer, there is still work to be done. In 2013, it was estimated that 12,340 women would be diagnosed cervical cancer and 4,030 of them would die from the disease in the United States. And despite advancements, cervical cancer is still the fourth leading cause of cancer death in women worldwide. While just being a woman puts us at risk for cervical cancer, we put ourselves at higher risk if we:

  • Don’t get regular Pap tests.
  • Have a family medical history of cervical cancer.
  • Have multiple sex partners.
  • Have a history of smoking.
  • Have used birth control pills for a long time.
  • Were exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth.
  • Have a weakened immune system.
  • Are overweight or obese.
  • Have an HPV.

Protect yourselves and those you love. Talk to your health care professional at your annual appointment. You’ll be glad you did.

Read more about cervical cancer prevention and early detection.