What experts want you to know about gynecologic cancers

Hundreds of thousands of people in the world suffer from cancers caused by viruses and millions more suffer from the viruses that cause them. September is Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month, but did you know that some gynecologic cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus? The HPV vaccine can protect against the virus and can ultimately prevent cancer. Most cases of cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers are caused by HPV.

In 1991, the Prevent Cancer Foundation funded the research proposal of a young scientist looking to reduce the number of cervical cancer cases through a vaccine. That scientist was Anna R. Giuliano, Ph.D. Today, she is the founding director of the Center for Immunization and Infection Research in Cancer (CIIRC) at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. Dr. Giuliano’s career had its inception in the relationship between HPV infections and cervical cancer and has evolved over the past 30 years to encompass other infectious diseases and their causal relationships with various cancers. Her work has contributed significantly to our understanding of HPV natural history and HPV vaccine protection against multiple diseases in women and men.

We sat down with Dr. Giuliano to discuss her work on the HPV vaccine and what people can do to lower their risk of gynecologic cancers:

What role does the HPV vaccine play in preventing cancer?

For prevention of cervical cancer, vaccination is one of three coordinated interventions with cervical cancer screening and treatment that will lead to the elimination of this cancer. Think of vaccination as one of three essential pillars to achieve the elimination goal. Currently, there is not routine screening to detect the other five cancers HPV can cause. So for those cancers (anal, oropharyngeal, penile, vulvar and vaginal cancers), vaccination is the only proven intervention we have to prevent these cancers. In other words, vaccination against HPV is essential.

How does it feel to have worked on the groundbreaking preventive vaccine that protects against HPV and reduces cancer risk?

I feel incredibly fortunate that I was able to contribute to the testing and ultimately the licensure of vaccines to prevent HPV infection in men and women. I started conducting cervical cancer prevention research in 1990—a time when a vaccine to prevent this cancer and others caused by HPV was just a dream. Vaccine development and research proceeded so quickly that 16 years later, we had the first vaccines to prevent HPV licensed and in national vaccination programs. Due to the high effectiveness of the vaccines—along with screening and treatment interventions—today, we can confidently say it is possible to see the elimination of cervical cancer in our lifetime.

September is Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month. What else can people do to incorporate preventive practices into their lifestyles to reduce their risk of these types of cancer? (Cervical, ovarian, uterine/endometrial, vaginal and vulvar cancers)

Ideally, women should be seeking routine preventive care with a gynecologist and/or family medicine provider for the prevention of all gynecologic cancers. For cervical cancer prevention, routine and consistent screening for pre-cancerous lesions, and treatment of these should they be diagnosed, is essential (in addition to vaccination). Health care providers can guide people to the appropriate screening interval and treatment options available for the prevention of cervical cancer.

Know your risk—learn more about the link between certain viruses and cancer.

To prevent cervical cancer or detect it early, get a Pap test every 3 years, an HPV test every 5 years, or a Pap test and HPV test together (co-testing) every 5 years. To learn more about what screenings you need at every age, check out our screenings snapshot chart.

Have you had an experience with gynecologic cancer and want to use your voice to empower others? Share your story with us.