January is Cervical Health Awareness month, and Texas Health Care physicians are working to raise awareness about cervical cancer and its primary cause, the human papillomavirus (HPV). This is an important health issue not just for women, but also for any parent with a young daughter or son.
While all women are at risk for cervical cancer, this is a very treatable and curable form of cancer if detected early. What’s more, parents can greatly reduce the risk of their daughter ever getting the disease in the first place. That’s why the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls cervical cancer “the most preventable female cancer.”
Causes and Risk Factors
HPV is the primary cause of cervical cancer, but relatively few people who contract HPV will ever develop cervical cancer. HPV is a common virus transmitted through sexual contact. The CDC reports that at least half of the sexually active population has HPV, and many who have it will never realize it.
In most cases, HPV will prove to be harmless, but in some instances it can alter cells in the cervix and cause cancer. This is one of the reasons it’s so important for women to have regular exams and ensure that they are not at risk.
While HPV is the primary risk factor associated with cervical cancer, other factors may increase the risk of cervical cancer, including:
- HIV-positive status
Detecting Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer is detected through the Pap test. The Pap test, sometimes called a Pap smear, detects cellular changes which could indicate cancer or a risk of developing cancer in the cervix. By detecting changes early enough, cancer can be treated or even prevented.
It was once recommended that women have a Pap test every year. However, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), less-frequent testing can be recommended.
The Pap test is done by taking a sample of cells from the cervix, which usually does not cause any pain. The entire exam only takes a few minutes. If a Pap test’s results are unclear, the HPV test can also be used to provide more information.
“All women should receive a Pap test on the schedule recommended for their age, unless their physician tells them otherwise,” says Dr. Thomas Vaughan, a Texas Health Care OB/GYN. “While a Pap test may not be required every year, women should still see their OB/GYN once a year for a well woman exam. It’s important we see our patients annually for pelvic and breast exams, in addition to checking up on their overall health.”
Preventing Cervical Cancer: The HPV Vaccine
One of the most effective things we can do to prevent cervical cancer is better educate parents on the importance of their children receiving the HPV vaccine. Parents should ask their child’s doctor about the HPV vaccine, as it can protect the child from HPV later in life. The HPV vaccine dramatically reduces a girl’s odds of ever developing cervical cancer, as well as vaginal and vulvar cancers.
Vaccines are recommended for boys and girls aged 11 - 12. However, girls and young women ages 13 through 26 can also receive the vaccines if they did not get a full course when they were younger, according to the CDC. Young men can receive the vaccine through age 21. The HPV vaccine is administered in a series of three shots.
“It’s perfectly understandable that some parents don’t want to talk or think about the HPV vaccine for their child who is 11 or 12 years old,” said Texas Health Care member and OB/GYN Dr. Elisabeth Wagner, who has a young daughter herself. “But as parents, we have to face reality – our sons and daughters are going to grow up someday, and it’s our job to make sure we’ve provided them with every chance for a healthy and happy life that we can. The HPV vaccine is an important part of doing this.”
Greater Awareness Means More Prevention
By raising awareness of cervical cancer’s causes and the simple ways it can be prevented, we can defeat cervical cancer and save lives. Even if a woman does develop cancer of the cervix, early detection increases the odds she can be cured of it, provided she has regular checkups and exams as recommended.
If it’s been a year or longer since your last well women exam, call your doctor today to make an appointment. And if you’re looking for an OB/GYN for yourself or a loved one, Texas Health Care has more than two dozen OB/GYNs in its membership, with practices all over Tarrant County.