January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. If you aren’t very familiar with cervical cancer, now is the perfect time to learn more about it. Understanding more about cervical health can help you take better steps toward cervical cancer prevention and cervical cancer treatment. Here’s what you need to know.
What Causes Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix -- the lower part of the uterus (womb) that connects to the vagina (birth canal). According to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, about 99% of cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV).
HPVs are a group of more than 200 related viruses. More than 40 HPV types can be easily spread through direct sexual contact. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than half of sexually active individuals are estimated to become infected at some point in their lives, making HPV infections the most common sexually transmitted infections in the United States.
For most women, pre-cancerous cells will go away without any treatment. For others, however, pre-cancerous cells eventually turn into cancer. Typically, cervical cancer produces no symptoms until it has reached a more advanced stage. When symptoms do occur, they often include abnormal vaginal bleeding, unusual vaginal discharge, and pain during intercourse. If you have any of these symptoms, talk with your gynecologist to see if you should be examined and tested for HPV and/or cancerous cells on the cervix.
Cervical Cancer Prevention and Early Detection
There are several important things you can do to reduce your risk of contracting HPV and/or cervical cancer.
1) Regular Cervical Cancer Screening
Over the last 40 years, the cervical cancer death rate has decreased by more than 50%, largely in part due to early detection through routine cervical screenings (Pap tests). Seeing your gynecologist for regular screening procedures can find changes in the cervix before cancer develops. It can also find cervical cancer early, when cervical cancer treatment is the most effective.
Some important guidelines set in place by The American Cancer Society regarding cervical cancer screenings include:
- Pap tests every 3 years for women aged 21-29 (HPV testing should only be used as a follow-up for abnormal Pap results)*
- Co-testing (Pap + HPV test) every 5 years for all women aged 30-65*
- No screenings for women over age 65 who have had regular screening within the last 10 years and no serious pre-cancers within the last 20 years
- No screenings for women who have had a total hysterectomy, unless the surgery was performed as a treatment for cervical pre-cancer or cancer
Contact your gynecologist for an appointment. In Maryland, the National Cervical Cancer Coalition publishes resources that may be available for low-cost or free Pap testing.
2) Consider the HPV Vaccine
Because approximately 80% of women are currently expected to have been infected with some type of HPV by age 50, a vaccine has been developed. The Center for Disease Control & Prevention recommends a vaccine against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical cancer for preteens (both boys and girls) at approximately 11 to 12 years old. However it can still be administered even at ages up to 26.
Even if you have had the HPV vaccine, the Pap test screening guidelines are recommended. Women who are high-risk should follow the recommendations of their health care provider(s).
3) Stop Smoking
Cervical cancer is among the types of cancer that are related to smoking. We recommend a smoking cessation program as soon as possible for your best overall health, including a lower risk of developing some cancers.
4) Use latex condoms during intercourse
The CDC indicates that the effect of condoms in preventing HPV infection is unknown. However, condom use has been associated with a lower rate of cervical cancer.
5) Limit the number of sexual partners
You may want to have a test run for HPV or other sexually transmitted infections periodically to be sure you can seek treatment if needed. Talk to your gynecologist about your options.
Cervical Cancer Treatment Options
If detected early, treatment for cervical cancer can be successful. Cervical cancer treatment options depend on a variety of factors including the stage of cancer, the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and their desire to have children. Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination of the three may be used by your cervical cancer specialist.
Cervical cancer is preventable. Be part of the change and help promote awareness. It’s a new year--dedicate it to your cervical health!