Each year, about 4,000 women die of cervical cancer in the U.S. and around 11,500 new cases are diagnosed. The vast majority of them are caused by HPV (Human Papillomavirus).
Bridgette Rillo, a registered nurse and mother of two in Dayton, Ohio, was just 35 when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2018.
Now 41, she is aiming to raise awareness of the link between HPV and cervical cancer.
Before Rillo’s diagnosis, she was running a few months late for her yearly screening.
“As busy moms, we tend to put our care to the side,” she told Fox News Digital. “I just kind of put it off because I was busy with my kids and patients.”
After the screening, her doctor called and said the results were “abnormal” and that Rillo was positive for HPV. It’s the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States, according to the CDC.
After further tests, doctors confirmed that Rillo had cervical cancer.
It was Stage 1A2, which means the cancer was between 3 and 5 millimeters deep.
“I did not have any symptoms, so it was definitely not expected when I got the call,” she told Fox News Digital.
“All of my screenings prior to that were fine.”
As the doctors explained to Rillo, HPV can lay dormant in the body for years until something triggers it to activate and become positive.
After receiving various treatments, Rillo was declared cancer-free.
Now that she has reached her five-year milestone, she will only need to get regular yearly screenings.
As a NICU nurse and busy mom, Rillo said her HPV and cervical cancer experience has changed how she prioritizes her own health and wellness.
“If I had not gone back to the doctor, my story could have been much different.”
“In order to take care of other people, you have to take care of yourself,” she said. “It’s important that women go for their yearly screenings and get any other screenings their doctors recommend.”
“My last screening just a year and four months prior was negative,” Rillo added. “If I hadn’t gone back to the doctor, my story could have been much different.”
Connection between HPV and cervical cancer
For 90% of women with HPV, the virus clears on its own within two years without any symptoms or treatment — but for the remainder, it can cause health problems that include genital warts and various types of cancer, per the CDC.
In most cases, HPV does not cause any symptoms.
In addition to cervical cancer, the virus can also cause anal, vulvar, vaginal, mouth/throat and penile cancers, according to Dr. Pari Ghodsi, a board-certified OB/GYN and Merck spokesperson who practices in Los Angeles.
“Anyone who is sexually active can be at risk of becoming infected with HPV,” Ghodsi told Fox News Digital. “There’s no way of knowing who will clear the virus and who won’t.”
“That’s why it’s really important to practice prevention and speak to your doctor about ways to prevent HPV-related cancers and to undergo HPV screening.”
The average age of cervical cancer diagnosis is 50, but patients can range from age 20 to 80, the doctor noted.
“There’s no way of knowing who will clear the virus and who won’t.”
“But it can take a long time for the HPV to progress into cervical cancer — it can take years or even decades,” Ghodsi said.
There is a vaccine available to help prevent HPV, which is administered in two or three doses depending on age.
The CDC recommends that all females start the vaccine series at age 11 or 12.
“At any age, having a new sex partner is a risk factor for getting a new HPV infection,” the CDC states on its website. “People who are in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship are not likely to get a new HPV infection.”
Ghodsi recommends that everyone speak to their physician about ways to prevent HPV from progressing to cancer.
Warning signs of cervical cancer
Although HPV typically has no symptoms, cervical cancer can come with some warning signs as it begins to progress.
Valentina Milanova, a women’s health expert and founder of gynecological health company Daye in the U.K., emphasized the need to be aware of these five often-overlooked red flags.
1. Abnormal bleeding
This is one of the most common symptoms of cervical cancer, Milanova noted.
“It can manifest as bleeding after sexual intercourse, between menstrual periods or post-menopause,” she told Fox News Digital.
“Any unusual bleeding should be reported to a health care professional immediately.”
2. Pelvic pain
Unexplained pain in the pelvic region — the lowest part of the abdomen and pelvis — is another warning sign of cervical cancer.
“This pain can often be dismissed or attributed to other causes, but persistent pelvic discomfort with no apparent reason should be investigated,” Milanova said.
3. Pain during sexual activity
Discomfort or pain during intimacy can be a symptom of cervical cancer, the doctor warned.
“It’s important to communicate with your health care provider about any pain experienced during sexual activity,” said Milanova.
4. Unusual discharge
Changes in vaginal discharge, such as an increase in volume, changes in consistency or a foul odor, can be indicative of cervical cancer, the doctor said.
“Any significant changes in vaginal discharge should be discussed with a health care provider,” she told Fox News Digital.
5. Urinary problems
Advanced cervical cancer can cause urinary symptoms such as frequent urination, difficulty or pain during urination, or blood in the urine, according to Milanova.
“While these symptoms can be caused by conditions other than cervical cancer, they should not be ignored,” she said.
It’s crucial to consult with a health care professional if you experience any of those symptoms, Milanova said.
“Regular screenings and early detection are our best tools in the fight against cervical cancer,” she added.