More than 26 percent of sexually active women between the ages of 14 and 59 can be expected to contract human papilloma virus (aka HPV), one of the most common sexually transmitted infections that nearly all sexually active women (and men) get it at some point in their lives.
HPV encompasses roughly 150 different viral strains, which can—if it doesn't clear within two years, as is the case for 90 percent of diagnoses—give rise to cervical cancer or genital warts. Now, a new study finds that women who've contracted HPV may be at higher risk of developing anal cancer, which is often misconstrued as a problem primarily for men who have sex with men and people who are HIV-positive.
Following a research-backed hunch that women with a history of HPV may need to get screened for more than just one kind of below-the-belt cancer, Katina Robison, M.D., of the Program in Women's Oncology at Women & Infants Hospital in New England, screened 273 women for HPV and anal cancer from December 2012 to February 2014.
Women were slotted into two groups: a high-risk one that comprised ladies with a history of cancer or pre-cancer in their cervical, vaginal, or vulvar tissues—that is, women who've contracted and had complications from HPV; and a low-risk one that had no cancer history in those regions. Results from Robison's study showed that 40 percent of the high-risk group had "abnormal anal cytology"—meaning the swabs doctors inserted into their back-ends looked stranger than average under a microscope. After taking a tissue sample from these high-risk women's anal canals to better see what was up with those swabs, Robison's team found 13.4 percent of high-risk women did, indeed, have precancerous cells in their anus. One case of actual anal cancer was also identified in this group.
When it came to the low-risk group, 20 percent had HPV in their anal canals—but no evidence, upon further investigation, of precancerous or cancerous cells therein.
Because Pap smears can, as Robison explained to Cosmopolitan.com, be finicky in terms of picking up problems that may not be full blown, she doesn't recommend all women rush to their gynecologists to get tested for anal cancer. "If we did an anal Pap on everyone, we'd be over-screening," she pointed out. (Remember, even though the low-risk group's anal swabs showed abnormalities, none ended up being connected to cancer.) "But women who've had an HPV-related cancer, pre-cancer, or a history of abnormal cervical pap smears should talk to their ob-gyns about screening for anal cancer because they're at a greater risk."
Robison's research stands as one more reason young women and girls are wise to get vaccinated against HPV. (Read: Ask their docs about Gardasil.) Especially considering that HPV cases dropped a whopping 56 percent among teens since the vaccine's intro in 2006.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.