Cervical Cancer: Know the Facts and Protect Yourself

Woman speaking with doctor

January is Cervical Health Month, so this month we’re focusing on ways to educate and help you protect yourself from all cervical-related health threats.  One of the biggest threats to your cervical health is cervical cancer.  Cervical cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer for women, worldwide. It starts at the cervix, which is the narrow opening from the vagina to the uterus. Every year in the United States, roughly 13,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer. Typically occurring in mid-life, cervical cancer is usually diagnosed in women between the ages of 35 and 44.

In the US each year, approximately 4,000 women die from cervical cancer. The good news is while cervical cancer used to be a major killer of women, in recent years the death rate has drastically dropped. Between 1955 and 1992, the death rate from cervical cancer decreased by more than 60%. This drop in the death rate is due to technological advances that allow doctors to screen for abnormal cervical cells before they become cancerous. Today, in fact, cervical cancer is one of the most preventable and treatable forms of cancers for women.

The Strongest Defense is Early Detection & Prevention

Due to advances in technology, pre-cancerous cells are detected far more often than cervical cancer itself. Pre-cancerous cells are detected through a Pap test, which the American Cancer Society recommends all women begin receiving at age 21.

Because of these screenings, cervical cancer is almost entirely preventable. Even if you’ve been vaccinated for HPV, it’s still important to follow the American Cancer Society’s guidelines for Pap screenings:

  • For women between the ages of 21 and 29, a test should occur once every three years.
  • HPV testing can follow any Pap smear that yields abnormal results for those between the ages of 21 and 29.
  • Women between the ages of 30 and 65, should receive a Pap smear every five years, in conjunction with an HPV test.
  • Women do not need to be tested every year.
  • You should continue to be tested after you have children.

Most invasive cervical cancers are found in women who have not undergone regular Pap tests; therefore, it’s crucial to your health to get screened regularly.

Symptoms and Signs of Cervical Cancer

Early cervical cancer and pre-cancerous cervical cells do not cause symptoms. This is why it’s important to be screened regularly; by the time you exhibit symptoms, the cancer could be late-stage. If you do experience any of these symptoms, you should seek a doctor’s advice. All of these symptoms may point towards the possibility of cervical cancer:

  • Abnormal bleeding between menstrual cycles, after menopause, after sex, or after stimulation of the vaginal area (such as douching or a pelvic exam)
  • Pain during urination or sex
  • Other pelvic or lower back pain, not related to your menstrual cycle
  • Increased frequent urination, or the inability to hold your bladder
  • Unusually heavy discharge (could be thick, watery, clear, brown, or have a foul odor)
  • Lesser appetite; losing weight without trying
  • Increased exhaustion, overly fatigued for no reason

All of these symptoms are not always indicative of cervical cancer, but they may be signs of another health issue. If you’re more prone to infections, you should be aware that you’re also at greater risk for HPV to develop into cervical cancer.

Risk Factors and Ways to Protect Yourself

The number one risk factor for developing cervical cancer is an HPV infection. 99% of cervical cancers can be traced back to HPV, or the Human papillomavirus. The CDC recommends vaccinating both boys and girls between the ages of 11-12 or before they are sexually active. If you haven’t already been vaccinated for HPV, it’s likely that you still can be. Even if you’re sexually active and think you may have come into contact with a strain of HPV, the vaccine can protect you from some of the other 200 strains of the virus. Two specific strains of HPV are responsible for 70% of cervical cancers, so vaccination is the safest bet. Besides being vaccinated for HPV, there are other practical steps you can take to protect yourself from cervical cancer in the long run:

  • Receive regular Pap smears and HPV tests
  • Do not smoke
  • Use condoms during sex
  • Discuss sexual histories with partners, so you’re more informed about potential risks you may be taking

Women who are prone to infections or have a compromised immune system because of auto-immune disorders, organ transplant(s), or long-time steroid use are at a higher risk of HPV developing into cervical cancer. If you’re at risk, you should discuss these factors with your physician at your regular Pap test.

The Future of Cervical Cancer

Current studies are focusing on HPV’s spread and why only some strains have the ability to cause cancerous shifts in cervical cells. By better understanding cervical cancer’s origin, scientists hope to better control its spread. Researchers are also looking into other means to protect oneself from HPV, like topical treatments. Another recent, technological development is the HPV DNA test, by which doctors can test the type of HPV a patient has to see if it’s considered high risk. If you have recently been diagnosed with HPV, see if your provider can administer an HPV DNA test to see if you’re at risk for developing cervical cancer.

For now, nothing beats regular Pap screenings and HPV tests when it comes to protecting yourself against cervical cancer. Contact Capitol Women’s Care to schedule an appointment and/or if you have questions about your cervical health.

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The providers of Capital Women's Care seek the highest quality medical and ethical standard in an environment that nurtures the spirit of caring for every woman.

 

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