When you have HIV, you are at higher risk for cancer in the cervix, the opening to the uterus. More than 12,000 women develop cervical cancer each year in the United States. Having HIV makes you about 2 to 8 times more likely to get this type of cancer than a woman who doesn't have HIV.
Why Cervical Cancer Is More Common With HIV
Most cervical cancer is caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). There are more than 40 types of HPV that can be passed from person to person during sexual contact. HPV infections are very common. About 6 million people get an infection every year in the United States. Most of the time, the infection goes away on its own without even causing symptoms.
If you have HIV, your body usually can fight off HPV; however, your body may have a harder time doing so. In fact, if your HIV is active and you have a high viral count, you have lower chance of getting rid of HPV.
Getting an Early Diagnosis of Cervical Cancer
There's no treatment for HPV. If your body can't clear it, over time it can cause abnormal changes in the cells in your cervix. This is called dysplasia. These abnormal cells can eventually become cancer cells.
Your doctor can find dysplasia early if you undergo a pelvic exam and Pap smear on a regular basis. By treating dysplasia, your doctor can almost always prevent cervical cancer from developing.
During the first year after your HIV diagnosis, you should get two Pap smears. If the Pap smears are normal, you will still need to get a Pap smear once each year. If you have an abnormal smear, this does not mean you will get cancer. It does mean that your doctor will have to watch you more closely. Talk with your doctor about your best options.
Always let your doctor know if you have any of these symptoms of cervical cancer:
Pain during vaginal sex
Bleeding after vaginal sex
Bleeding after menopause
Bleeding between periods
Preventing Cervical Cancer
Getting an HPV vaccine is important. It can help prevent an HPV infection if you get the shot before you become sexually active. The vaccine is usually recommended for girls 11 to 12 years old. Talk with your doctor about it if you're under age 27. It might still offer you some protection.
Don't skip Pap smears even if you get the HPV vaccine. The vaccine substantially reduces the chance of HPV infection. It does not, however, prevent all the types of HPV infection that can cause cervical cancer.
You can cut down on your risk for HPV and cervical cancer with these steps:
Get a Pap smear and pelvic exam on a regular basis, as directed by your doctor.
Avoid risky sex.
Try to find a long-term sexual relationship in which you and your partner have no other sexual partners.
Use a condom every time you have vaginal, oral, or anal sex.
Don’t smoke. Smoking increases your risk for cervical cancer.
Having HIV puts you at higher risk for HPV and cervical cancer.
You can help prevent cervical cancer by getting Pap smears on a regular basis.
Tell your doctor about any pelvic pain or abnormal bleeding.
Practice safe sex to help prevent HPV infection.