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Cervical Health Awareness

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, an opportunity to highlight a very important aspect of women’s health.  A lot of progress has been made in the fight against both cervical cancer and its main cause, the human papillomavirus (HPV).  Decades ago, cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer death for American women.  Fortunately, thanks to regular screening and other medical advances, that is no longer the case. 

In 2018 (the most recent year for which data is available), there were 12,733 new cases of cervical cancer in the Unites States.  The same year, 4,138 women died from cervical cancer. There were nearly 1,300 cervical cancer cases reported in Texas that year, which has a higher incidence of the disease than the Unites States overall. 

Cervical cancer is most often diagnosed in women age 30 or older.  However, the disease is highly treatable when detected early and is preventable in many cases through the detection of pre-cancerous cells.  Additionally, parents can now protect their children from later developing cervical and other types of cancer by making sure they get the HPV vaccine. 

Causes, Risk Factors & Symptoms

HPV, a common virus transmitted through sexual contact, is almost always the cause of cervical cancer.   In most cases, HPV will prove to be harmless.  However, 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, so that any abnormalities are detected early.   

Smoking is also a risk factor for cervical cancer. 

In early stages, cervical cancer may not produce symptoms.  Advanced cervical cancer may cause vaginal bleeding or discharge, though other conditions can also cause those symptoms.  In the event of any unexplained symptoms, schedule a visit with your OB-GYN as soon as possible. 

Screening for Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is detected through the Pap test.  The Pap test, sometimes called a Pap smear, identifies cellular changes that could indicate cancer or a risk of developing cancer in the cervix.  By spotting changes early enough, cancer can be successfully treated – or even prevented altogether. 

At one time, it was recommended that women get a Pap test annually.  This is no longer necessary.  As doctors have learned more about cervical cancer and how long it takes to develop, less frequent screenings are now considered sufficient. 

The current screening guidelines, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), are:

  • Women ages 21-29 should have a Pap test every three years
  • Women ages 30-65 should have a Pap test and HPV test every five years
  • After age 65, many women no longer need to screen for cervical cancer, but your provider will give you specific guidance based on your medical history

These are general guidelines and your physician may provide screening guidance specific to you based on your medical history and other factors. 

The Pap test involves taking a sample of cells from the cervix, following a visual examination of the pelvic area by the physician.  The entire exam only takes a few minutes.  If an HPV test is necessary, it can be conducted at the same time, utilizing the same sample of cells collected for the Pap test. 

All women should still see their ob-gyn once a year for a well-woman exam and annual checkup. 

Preventing HPV and Cervical Cancer: The HPV Vaccine

HPV is very common – nearly one in four people in the United States are infected with it. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 80% of the population will have HPV at some point in their lives.  There are several different strains of HPV. 

For most, the virus will never cause any problems at all and in 90% of cases, it will go away on its own within a couple of years.  However, in some instances, HPV can cause cancer.  

Parents can help their daughters reduce their risk for cervical cancer in the future by ensuring that they receive the HPV vaccine.  And it’s not only girls who need to receive this vaccine – boys need to get it, also. 

When boys are vaccinated for HPV, they are less likely to get the virus and therefore, they are less likely to spread it to others.  And while HPV is most commonly associated wither cervical cancer, the virus can also lead to other cancers.  Some of these cancers can impact men as well as women, such as cancers of the head and neck.   In fact, men are four times more likely than women to get head and neck cancer from a certain strain of HPV. 

Parents can reduce their daughters’ and sons’ future risk for cancer by ensuring that they receive the HPV vaccine.  Girls and boys should receive the HPV vaccine at ages 11-12, although it can be given beginning at age 9.  The vaccine is administered through two shots, six to twelve months apart.  For people older than 14, the vaccine will consist of three shots over a six-month period.  The HPV vaccine is approved for women and men up to age 45. 

Medical research proves the HPV vaccine is effective. Since the vaccine became available in 2006, incidence of cervical cancers in the United States has begun to decline.  Among women who have been vaccinated for HPV, there has been a 40% decrease in cervical precancers. 

There are several great reasons for parents to get their kids vaccinated for HPV at the earliest opportunity after they turn 11:   

  • The HPV vaccine can be administered at the same time as the other vaccines that are due at age 11, including MenACWY (meningitis) and Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis).
  • The HPV vaccine requires only two doses if given at age 11-12; waiting until the child is older will mean three doses.
  • The vaccine is more effective when administered at a young age.
  • Research has shown that receiving the vaccine at age 11 does not lead to an earlier start of sexual activity.

Prevention & Early Detection Save Lives

All women should see their health care provider at least once a year for a well-woman exam, which is the key to the early detection of cervical cancer and other conditions.  In many cases, a Pap test can detect cellular changes that are precursors to cancer and early detection of these changes can prevent the cancer from ever developing.  Parents can help safeguard their daughters from the risk of getting cervical cancer later in life by ensuring they receive the HPV vaccine.  

If it has been more than a year since your last well-woman exam, call your provider and make an appointment today.  If you or a family member are looking to establish a relationship with an obstetrician/gynecologist or primary care provider, Privia Medical Group North Texas has dozens of providers to choose from. 

This article contains information sourced from:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

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