Can Your IUD Prevent Cervical Cancer?

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New research shows IUDs may prevent more than just pregnancy.

An exciting breakthrough in science is gracing us with some much needed good news. According to the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, people who have a cervix and use an intrauterine device for birth control may lower their risk of developing cervical cancer. The new study found that cervical cancer was one third lower in those who have an IUD than those who do not.

What is an IUD?

An IUD is a T-shaped device that is inserted into the uterus is used for several years in order to prevent pregnancy. Two types of IUDs are made available for patients — one is made up of copper and the other is plastic with a small amount of the hormone progestin.

What is HPV, and what is its connection to cervical cancer?

Around 80 percent of sexually active people have the Human Papillomavirus — a virus that is largely connected to cervical cancer. Most men and women are affected by HPV at some point in their lives but many never know they have the virus, as it typically clears on its own. Nevertheless, cervical cancer is the result of of two types of HPV called HPV 16 and HPV 18.

If you have an abnormal Pap result, the results typically include low-grade cells, high-grade cells, or atypical glandular cells.

Low-grade cervical changes signal an HPV infection, but it is typically cleared on its own. These types of changes show mild abnormal changes on the cervix. High-grade cervical changes signal rapid changes in cells which will need further medical attention such as a biopsy and colposcopy. HPV 16 and 18, high-grade cells, occur when the body’s immune system fails to fight off the HPV. Atypical glandular cells raise the concern of precancerous cells or cancer on the canal of the cervix.

Moreover, cervical cancer is on the rise. Preventative measures should be taken into consideration now as biopsies and LEEPs, a treatment that prevents cervical cancer and removes abnormal cells, are becoming more of a reality for young people.

The World Health Organization (WHO) believes that by 2035, the amount of women with cervical cancer will jump from 266,000 in 2012 to 756,000.

How does an IUD help prevent cervical cancer?

Researchers are still looking for answers as to how an IUD can impact an immune system. However, Victoria Cortessis, an associate professor of clinical preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and her team have a few theories. The insertion of an IUD “triggers an immune response” that fights off the HPV virus. Since the IUD is a foreign object, the body responds by heightening the immune system. Another theory is that when an IUD is removed, cervical cells that have HPV may be scraped off. Cortessis says she is more skeptical of the latter theory.

Cortessis says, “We need to figure out what’s going on mechanistically and do some fine tuning and see what kind of use could prevent cervical cancer and integrate that with contraceptive counseling.”

Does this mean I should definitely get an IUD?

Whether IUDs truly prevent cervical cancer is still a work in progress in terms of research and better understanding.

The study did not include how the device prevents the rate of cervical cancer, but it’s a start. “This is observational research so we are always skeptical,” said Cortessis.

Still, Cortessis is excited about the potential phenomenon. In the study, she and her co-authors looked at 12,000 people with a cervix around the world and found that those with an IUD were 30 percent less likely to have had cervical cancer.

This is not to say that an IUD conclusively prevents cervical cancer.

So, how can I prevent cervical cancer?

First things first, stay on top of your Pap smears. The CDC recently reported that individuals with a cervix need to go into for a Pap every three years and women with Pap results that were previously abnormal need to go in every year.

Pap smears and colposcopies help doctors look at abnormal cells before they develop into cervical cancer. As a result, preventative services allow doctor’s to perform specific procedures (such as a LEEP) to stop further abnormal cell changes that could turn into cervical cancer. Since cervical cancer is slowly becoming a global epidemic, it’s especially important to remain on top of your health, specifically for those with less access to screenings and health services.

The takeaway…

Cortessis explains that a “staggering number of women in the developing world are on the verge of entering the age range where the risk for cervical cancer is the highest — the 30s to the 60s. Even if the rate of cervical cancer remains steady, the actual number of women with cervical cancer is poised to explode.”

She continues, “IUDs could be a tool to combat this impending epidemic.”

Remember, preventing cervical cancer does not lie solely in an IUD but in diet, regular Pap smears, the HPV vaccine, no smoking, and safe sex.

While patients shouldn’t seek out IUDs for cancer prevention, they should look into the device in terms of being the most effective contraceptive. If you already have an IUD, the lower numbers of cervical cancer could be an additional consideration.

Seriously, at this point, could IUDs get any better?

Header image edited by Marcy Gooberman

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