Did you know that cervical cancer could be the first cancer in the world to be eliminated? It’s an exciting target, and something that’s possible in the coming years, according to the World Health Organization, if enough people get the HPV vaccine (yes, there’s a cancer vaccine!).

In other words, it’s up to all of us—and that means boys as well as girls and men as well as women—to make strides toward ending this type of cancer. In honor of Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, read on to learn about what cervical cancer is, how to screen for it, and how you—and your children and grandchildren—can join the quest to end it.

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. According to the National Cancer Institute, there are changes that happen in the cervix before cancer cells appear. “Dysplasia” is the name given to abnormal cells that show up in cervical tissue, and if it’s not removed or destroyed, it can lead to cancer of the cervix, and also spread to other places in the body. 

What causes cervical cancer?

A sexually transmitted infection called human papilloma virus (HPV), which has a variety of different strains, plays a role in most cervical cancer cases, according to the Mayo Clinic. HPV can be spread through vaginal, anal and oral sex, and in addition to causing cervical cancer, it can also cause cancer in other areas, such as the oropharynx (which includes the mouth, tongue, throat and tonsils) as well as the anus, penis, vulva and vagina. Certain types of HPV, which are considered “low-risk,” can also cause warts, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Who gets cervical cancer?

In the U.S., nearly 14,000 people receive a cervical cancer diagnosis each year, and the average age of diagnosis is 50, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Anyone who has a cervix is at risk. Some groups have higher incidence rates than others: American Indian, Alaskan Native, Hispanic and Black people are more likely to get cervical cancer and are also more likely to die from it than those who are white, Asian and Pacific Islanders, according to the American Cancer Society. Every year, more than 4,000 people die from cervical cancer. 

What are the signs and symptoms of HPV and cervical cancer?

Unfortunately, HPV and early cervical cancer usually have no signs or symptoms. However, according to the National Cancer Institute, some women may experience vaginal bleeding after sex, after menopause or between periods; or have periods that are heavier or longer than usual, as well as discharge that is watery and has a strong odor and may contain blood; they may also experience pain in their pelvis or pain during sex.

There are also symptoms to look out for that could appear after the cancer has spread. According to the National Cancer Institute, those could include bowel movements that are difficult and/or painful, and may cause bleeding; urination that is painful or difficult and may include blood; a dull backache, swollen legs, abdomen pain and feeling tired. Of course, all of the above could also be symptoms of any number of conditions. So it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider about your concerns.

How can you prevent and/or lower your risk for cervical cancer?

There are a few steps you can take to minimize your risk. The best way to protect yourself—and your current and future sexual partners—from HPV and cervical cancer is to get the HPV vaccine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the vaccine is recommended for preteens who are 11 to 12, although it can be given as early as age 9. For those who weren’t vaccinated as pre-teens, it’s still recommended through age 26. It’s not recommended for people older than 26, although if you fall outside of that age range and are concerned, you can talk to your doctor about the pros and cons. Keep in mind that every person who is sexually active is at risk for HPV, and more than 50 percent of all people will be infected at some point; however, only a small percentage of those people will get cervical cancer, according to the CDC.

In addition, regular screenings can detect changes that could indicate cancer or pre-cancer. Those include the pap test (pap smear) and the HPV test. Talk to your healthcare provider about if and how often you should get screened. Further, practice safe sex. While HPV may still be transmitted through condoms, the CDC says that safe sex could lower the risk for developing cervical cancer. And, last, quit smoking, or don’t start. Smoking can compromise the immune system and put you at greater risk for a number of health conditions, including different types of cancer.

For years, the number of people dying from cervical cancer has been declining, thanks to screenings, vaccination and increased awareness. That number will continue to go down, as long as people continue to advocate for and protect themselves. Hopefully, in our lifetimes, we’ll have the joy and relief of seeing this kind of cancer eliminated because of our diligent efforts.