STD Awareness: HPV Testing vs. the Pap Test

I love writing about health and medicine, but I hate going to the doctor. I don’t like taking my clothes off for a dermatological exam, I don’t like rolling my sleeve up for a shot, and I don’t like opening my mouth for a dentist. I don’t even like having my blood pressure taken — it gives me the heebie-jeebies, and probably a case of white-coat hypertension too.


For now, pelvic exams are a mainstay — and an important part of cancer prevention.


So when it comes to something even more invasive, like the Pap test to screen for cervical cancer, I’m one of those people pining for a magic wand — a tool that a health care provider can wave over your fully clothed body to detect disease. The Pap test may have transformed a scourge like cervical cancer into one of the most easily detected and treated cancers — and for that I love it — but I still fervently wish for its demise. As long as it’s replaced by something better, of course.

Last month, an article in JAMA inspired a burst of headlines. “HPV test more effective than Pap smear in cancer screening,” said CNN. Or as WebMD put it more succinctly, “HPV Test Beats Pap.” Then, last week, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force updated their guidelines to recommend that patients 30 and older can forgo the Pap test in favor of HPV testing alone. This news might be welcome to anyone who dislikes regular Pap tests and wishes to avoid stirrups and speculums. Unfortunately, HPV tests aren’t the noninvasive “magic wand” so many of us hope for. From the patient’s perspective, the experience of undergoing an HPV test is no different from the experience of undergoing a Pap test. They both require a pelvic exam — the stuff of stirrups and speculums. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Eliminating HPV-Related Cancers

Earlier this month, every major cancer center and organization in the country released a joint statement calling for the elimination of cervical cancer, along with all other HPV-related cancers. The elimination of a large swath of cancers might sound like a tall order — so far, we’ve only eradicated two viruses from the planet: smallpox and rinderpest. And we’re on the brink of getting rid of a third, the virus that causes polio.

But doing away with human papillomavirus (HPV) would herald a new chapter in disease eradication, because HPV causes cancer, meaning that eradicating HPV will eradicate the cancers caused by it. And the good news is we have all the tools we need to wipe HPV off the face of the earth — we just need to use them.


The tools to wipe a large class of cancers off the face of the earth are right under our noses — we just have to use them.


A quick rundown on HPV is in order. It’s the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world, and causes multiple cancers — cervical, head and neck, anal, vulvar, vaginal, and penile. While it’s most well-known for causing cervical cancer, here in the United States it is transitioning away from its old job, causing more head-and-neck cancers than cervical cancers. Nearly all sexually active people will be infected with HPV at least once in their lives, and though only a fraction of infections progress to cancer, its ubiquity means it still causes hundreds of thousands of cancers every year. In the United States, around 41,000 HPV-related cancers are diagnosed annually, while more than 600,000 are diagnosed worldwide. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Fighting Cervical Cancer Across the World

Tomorrow kicks off World Immunization Week, a reminder that, just as disease can cross borders, so should our efforts to prevent it. Especially when we have an effective vaccine for one of the world’s top causes of cancer — but the people who need it most are less likely to get it.

Almost 90 percent of cervical-cancer deaths strike women in developing countries, where it is the second-most common cancer among women. In fact, over vast swaths of Africa, cervical cancer is the No. 1 cause of cancer death in women. (In the United States, it doesn’t even crack the Top 10.) While cervical cancer rates are holding steady in the developed world, in the coming decades they are projected to increase sharply in less developed regions.


More than 9 out of 10 cervical cancers strike women in countries with no HPV vaccination programs.


Since 2006 there has been a vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that causes cervical cancer. Unfortunately, while this vaccine is making impressive strides in the developed world, it is almost out of reach in the developing world, where it could save the most lives. To fully realize this vaccine’s potential, it needs to be distributed worldwide — not just within rich countries that can afford it.

Fighting Cervical Cancer in the Developed World

HPV has been nicknamed “the common cold of STDs” — because pretty much every sexually active person will get it at some point. It can be transmitted by vaginal, anal, and oral sex, as well as by rubbing genitals together, even without penetration. HPV can cause cancers of the throat, anus, vagina, vulva, and penis — but is most “famous” for causing cancer of the cervix (the tissue that connects the vagina to the uterus). If you have a cervix, there are two big things you can do to protect its health: receive regular Pap testing after becoming sexually active, and get vaccinated against HPV before becoming sexually active. When you take both of these steps, you’ll maximize what modern medicine has to offer. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Transgender Men and Cervical Health

Healthy cervical cells as seen under a microscope. Image: National Cancer Institute

Just one month ago, headlines screamed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) received a list of “banned words” from the Trump administration. One of those words was transgender, raising the alarm that the current president might be eyeing policies that would further marginalize the trans population and harm their health. (Other forbidden words include fetus, evidence-based, and vulnerable.) Some have argued it wasn’t Trump policy per se, but self-censoring on the part of the CDC to protect their budgets from being slashed by legislators hostile to transgender rights, abortion rights, science, people of color, and poor people.

In any case, refusing to use words like transgender can have grave consequences for trans health. If the CDC can’t reference the trans population when requesting money for services and studies, they will be hobbled in their ability to serve that population’s needs.


Recommendations for cervical cancer screening are the same for anyone with a cervix, whether trans or cisgender.


January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. Anyone who has a cervix can develop cervical cancer — including transgender men who have not had their cervixes surgically removed. In observance of the month, and in defiance of directions to avoid the word transgender, today we’ll discuss the importance of cervical health in trans men — and why taxpayer-funded entities like the CDC and the National Institutes of Health must be able to study and serve this population.

Transgender men (or trans men for short) are individuals born with female reproductive organs, but who identify as male. Likewise, cisgender women were born with female reproductive organs and identify as female. Both trans men and cisgender women were born with cervixes, and wherever a cervix exists, the possibility of cervical cancer exists. Continue reading

Do Birth Control Pills Cause Breast Cancer? The Latest Study

Last month, you might have seen headlines warning you that hormonal birth control increases risk for breast cancer. This news came from a study that examined the medical records of nearly 1.8 million Danish women — and the huge sample size lent heft to the findings, several of which stood in stark contradiction to commonly held beliefs about modern hormonal contraception.


Some types of hormonal contraception could increase breast cancer risk, while others may not. But the Pill also reduces risk for endometrial and ovarian cancers.


Birth control comes in two “flavors” — hormonal and nonhormonal. Hormonal contraception is among the most effective, and includes birth control pills, hormonal IUDs, the shot, the vaginal ring, the implant, and the patch. Nonhormonal contraception ranges from very effective, including surgical sterilization and the copper IUD, to the not-quite-as-effective, including condoms, diaphragms, and withdrawal. (With the exception of condoms, birth control does not provide protection against STDs.)

Hormonal contraception is one of the greatest achievements in the history of medicine, and offers those wishing to control their fertility an array of effective options. However, as with all effective medications, there is potential for side effects. And, because many forms of hormonal birth control contain types of estrogen, and exposure to estrogen is a risk factor for breast cancer, many people wonder if hormonal birth control might increase users’ chances of developing breast cancer later in life.

Most birth control pills contain a combination of two hormones: estrogen and progestin (synthetic progesterone). Other hormonal methods, such as the ring and the patch, also use combinations of these two hormones.

There are also pills that don’t contain estrogen, called POPs, or progestin-only pills — aka the “minipill.” Additionally, hormonal IUDs, the implant, and the shot are progestin-only methods.

What Previous Studies Have Shown

The connection between hormonal contraception and breast cancer is murky, because the association is difficult to study properly. There are so many different types of hormonal contraceptives, each with different dosages, different chemical formulations, and different ways of entering the body. We can’t tease these differences apart on the one hand, but make blanket statements about hormonal contraception as a whole on the other hand. But we can look at the available evidence and see where it points. Continue reading

Ovarian Cancer, Endometrial Cancer, and the Pill

The most popular method of birth control in the United States is the Pill, followed by tubal ligation (permanent sterilization, or getting your tubes tied) and condoms. The Pill is a hormonal method of contraception, while sterilization and condoms are nonhormonal. The distinction between hormonal and nonhormonal methods of birth control are simply that the former contain synthetic versions of human hormones, while the latter do not.


By suppressing ovulation and thinning the uterine lining, the Pill can reduce risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers.


Glands in our bodies, called endocrine glands, produce hormones; additionally, testes and ovaries — which are parts of the human reproductive system — manufacture hormones. Human hormones are powerful chemicals, which do all sorts of jobs, from triggering puberty to helping us extract energy from the foods we eat. So it’s not a huge stretch to wonder if exposure to the hormones present in certain birth control methods — such as the Pill, in addition to the patch, the ring, the shot, the implant, and some types of IUDs — might have unintended effects on the body. Because hormones can play a role in cancer — either in protecting against it or aiding in its development — researchers are very interested to know if the Pill might increase or decrease risk for various types of cancer.

It’s actually a bit tricky to investigate the possible associations between the Pill and various types of cancer. First of all, there are dozens of types of birth control pills, all with different versions of synthetic hormones, at different dosages, and in different proportions to one another. Furthermore, the types of oral contraceptives on the market change over time — today’s birth control pill is not your mother’s birth control pill. Studying “the Pill” as a single entity could obscure differences between brands. Secondly, most cancers tend to develop later in life, many years after someone may have taken oral contraceptives. Researchers need to be careful to control for all the variables that might increase or decrease cancer risk. Continue reading

Are There Any Survivors in the Room? A Story for Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month

female-dr-comforting-patient“Are there any survivors in the room?”

I don’t remember why I was there, but it was a discussion of cancer. I looked around at the people who had raised their hands. It wasn’t until the speaker moved on that I realized I was a cancer survivor, too.

Does that seem strange? But my first cancer in 2004 was so ambiguous. I had had a routine Pap test, and was referred to a gynecologist. I had had problematic Pap tests before, and it had usually meant I had a uterine polyp or a vaginal infection. This time it was not simple dysplasia. It seems I had precancerous cells, and the recommended treatment was a hysterectomy. I thought about it, and my sister discussed it with a friend who was also a gynecologist, and reported back that surgery was indeed the treatment of choice.


How was I supposed to relate to a cancer diagnosis that was made only after the cancer was out of my body?


I was over 50, and had pretty much gone through menopause, though once or twice a year I would have some bleeding. Everything about my reproductive system was ambiguous. I had started menstruating at age 9, along with the body changes of puberty, but seldom had my periods. When I was 18 and starting to move beyond my circumscribed Jewish Bronx upbringing, I was diagnosed with Stein-Leventhal syndrome. Great, I thought, I finally get a diagnosis, and it’s Jewish! Since that time, the condition has been renamed polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS. PCOS is a risk factor for many other diseases, including endometrial cancer.

But let’s get back to the hysterectomy. I had already decided that I would have the surgery when my sister got back to me. What had my uterus done for me lately, anyway? I had the doctors make the arrangements, met with the surgeon, and went through all the pre-surgery rigmarole. I made plans to stay with a friend for about a week after surgery, and checked into the hospital. When I woke up afterward, I was told that the biopsy that was done during surgery had been negative. Continue reading