|How To Prevent HPV and Cancer|
by Laura Dolson
Now that the word is out about HPV and cancer, the thing on many minds is prevention. How do we prevent people from getting HPV? CAN we prevent it? This is just as important for people who already have become infected, as there are many types of HPV, and sequential infections with different types is common. The other important question is "after having become infected with HPV, how do I prevent dysplasia and cancer"? This article will attempt to answer these questions, however, it is important to remember that there is still much about HPV that isn't known, and that even if you read all there is to know about HPV today, there will be new information available tomorrow!
Is it Possible? - It may not be possible to completely avoid HPV. For one thing, HPV probably plays a role in the causation of many cancers. In addition to the ano-genital region (cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, penis), HPV is associated with cancers of the skin, lung, esophagus, mouth, and more - and the types of the virus involved are basically the same. Since it's difficult to believe that up to half of all skin cancers are sexually-transmitted, there must be other ways of becoming infected, and there's no reason to think that the genitals are immune from those other ways. Still, sexual transmission is undoubtedly the most common method (by far) of getting the virus in the genital area.
Abstinence - Sexual abstinence is the "best bet" method of preventing HPV. However, it's important to realize what abstinence means in this context. Abstinence does not just mean avoiding sexual intercourse. Consider this: a study of lesbian women showed that 30% were infected with HPV. This clearly shows how totally unnecessary sexual intercourse is regarding the contagion of HPV. All too often, people think that that avoidance of intercourse is a sure way to avoid STD's, but this is not the case with HPV. To prevent HPV, abstinence means the avoidance of all sexual activity where there is skin-to-skin contact, including oral sex.
Monogamy - Monogamy is the second best method of HPV prevention. Although a couple does expose one another to the types of HPV each already has, they create a closed system, where new types are unlikely to be introduced. If all goes well, both people will be able to fight off the types of HPV they already have. Of course, so-called "serial monogamy" is much less helpful in preventing HPV than long-term, committed relationships, because each new partner opens up new possibilities for HPV exposure.
Condoms - There is controversy about how useful condoms are in reducing the risk of HPV. Consumer-oriented literature from a few years ago routinely mentioned the importance of condoms, but more recently publications hedge - "condoms MAY help in the prevention of HPV". Frankly, that's about where we are with it. Some studies show some reduction of risk, and others show no clear benefit. Diaphragms also may offer some protection to the cervix, but obviously not to other tissues. Barrier methods are no longer considered to be "safe sex", in regards to HPV.
Once a person is infected with HPV, how can they protect themselves from pre-cancerous changes? Much of the research in this area has been done in regards to cervical dysplasia (cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, or CIN), but may be useful in reducing the risk of vaginal, vulvar, anal, and penile dysplasia (VAIN, VIN, AIN, and PIN) as well.
Quit Smoking - The link between smoking and cervical dysplasia and cancer is very well established now. Byproducts of tobacco, including nicotine, can be found in cervical mucous. There is no doubt that quitting is the most effective thing a person can do to prevent dysplasia once HPV infection is established. Unfortunately, this is extraordinarily difficult to do. About's Smoking Cessation site has a wealth of information to support smokers in quitting.
Delay First Sexual Activity - There is some evidence that the lining of the cervix may not be fully mature in some way for several years after puberty. Studies vary in regards to which ages they check for, but some have found that there is an increased risk before the 18-20 age range.
Nutrition - Various studies have linked cervical dysplasia to lower intake of Vitamin C, folic acid, beta-carotene, selenium, and Vitamin A. In some studies, women who eat high levels of green vegetables or fruit have had less dysplasia and/or cervical cancer. However, all of this research can be considered preliminary, and no controlled studies have been done at this point.
Optimal Immune System Functioning - Cervical dysplasia and cancer is linked to lower-functioning immune systems. Women with HIV have much higher rates, for example. It seems prudent to consider increasing activities that generally have a positive effect on health and the immune system: regular exercise, adequate rest, stress reduction, and loving relationships.
In addition to the above, the very best way to prevent HPV-related cancer is annual pelvic exams and Pap tests, and to follow your doctor's instructions if a test reveals abnormalities. The vast majority of cervical cancer would be prevented if this advice was followed, and much vaginal and vulvar cancer as well.
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