Sex can cause cancer. To young women, that may sound like the scare tactic of an overprotective mother. But doctors say a sexually transmitted virus that often has no symptoms can lead to cervical cancer, which kills thousands of women each year.
Fortunately, cervical cancer is a slow-growing disease and can usually be discovered with a regular screening for cancerous cells, called a Pap smear.
The Pap smear has decreased the rate of cervical cancer by 95 percent, though many women are reluctant to get the test, said Shannon Moorehead, chairwoman of the obstetrics department at Paradise Valley Hospital.
"They don’t like to go. They have to get on a scale then be in a compromising position," said Kari Mau, a nurse practitioner at Scottsdale Healthcare Shea. "And people never like bad news."
Traci Phillips, 39, said she gets tested regularly and has been lucky so far.
"I’m pretty aware of that," she said. Phillips was eating lunch in Scottsdale with her 16-year-old daughter, Ashley. Phillips said she has talked with her daughters about seeing the doctor and getting screened, but that the idea is a little scary.
"Well, you get embarrassed about your body," Traci Phillips said.
Experts are promoting January as Cervical Health Awareness month in the hope that more women get screened for the disease.
Cervical cancer is considered a global health problem. It is the second most common cancer in women worldwide, and an estimated 270,000 women die from the disease every year, drug company GlaxoSmithKline reports.
It is usually is caused by the human papilloma virus, one of the most common sexually transmitted infections.
Moorehead said she sees 15 people a week, and about 10 percent test positive for the virus in a given week.
The problem, she said, is that HPV has no symptoms, so unless a woman gets an annual test, the cancerous cells that could begin to grow may go undetected.
Men can carry HPV and be unaware of it; nor can they be tested for it, Moorehead added.
Moorehead recommends that women get screened three years after becoming sexually active or after they turn 21.
"It’s the most common thing for people in their early 20s and teenagers to be exposed," she said. "It’s a big talk for abstinence. Not even condoms can completely protect you."
A few drug companies have begun to develop a vaccine for the types of HPV that are known to cause cancer.
Merck Research Laboratories conducted an HPV vaccine study in early 2005 with 552 women. Vaccine recipients had 90 percent fewer persistent infections, compared with women who got a placebo. Merck is now testing the product in a larger number of patients, the National Cancer Institute reports.
Moorehead said she expects the vaccine’s use to be widespread in the next 10 years, after it’s overcome the hurdles of insurance and distribution. It would be great if cervical cancer was totally erased by the new vaccines, she said, but that remains to be seen.
"There are those who don’t get care and don’t get it caught in time. Those same people may fall through the cracks and never get the vaccine," she said.