Cervical Health: What You Need to Know

Cervical Cancer Pervention

Today’s vast medical knowledge affords women many ways to monitor and protect all aspects of their health. However, one aspect of a woman’s personal healthcare plan overlooked by many women is the importance of maintaining and monitoring cervical health through recommended screening and vaccination.

Avoiding recommended medical screening and vaccination may lead to cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is largely completely preventable.

  • As many as 93% of diagnosed cervical cancers could be prevented through appropriate screening and vaccination for HPV (human papillomavirus, a medically proven cancer-causing virus which can infect both sexes and is a major cause of cervical cancer in women.)
  • In 2012, 8 million U.S. women ages 21 to 65 years reported they had not been screened for cervical cancer within the last 5 years.

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month and your local Capital Women’s Care team wants to share with you important information on how you can understand and minimize cervical cancer risks. Our physicians can educate patients about the importance of Pap smear cervical screenings and HPV tests and vaccinations to best protect your health.

Cervical Cancer Statistics

Cervical cancer in its early stage rarely presents any noticeable symptoms. Additionally, many women don’t prioritize cervical health screening and care, as evidenced with these startling statistics:

  • 1 in 5 women are not getting regularly screened for cervical cancer.
  • Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer, yet every year over 11,000 U.S. women are diagnosed.
  • 1 woman dies from cervical cancer every 2 hours each day.
  • More than half of new cervical cancer cases occur in women who have never or rarely been tested.

Pap screening in combination with the HPV vaccine provides the best possible protection for women ages 30-65. Studies indicate 95% of cervical cancer cases are detected through implementation of this powerful preventative plan.

Cervical Cancer Risk Factors

It’s important to reduce known risk factors of cervical cancer, pay attention to anything out of the ordinary with your body and, most importantly, have recommended screenings, tests and vaccinations to minimize cervical cancer risks. Women over age 40, those who have or have had HPV infection and those giving birth to many children especially face an increased risk for cervical cancer.

Things you can do to reduce your risk of cervical cancer:

Get vaccinated.

The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers.

Since HPV is the most common cause of cervical cancer, getting vaccinated against it is a primary means of prevention. HPV is a sexually transmitted virus.

In addition, HPV infections can cause cancers of the penis in men and anus and back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils (oropharynx), in both women and men.

An estimated 79 million Americans are infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV), many of whom don’t even know they have the virus. Every year, HPV is estimated to cause nearly 36,000 cases of cancer in U.S. men and women.

According to the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. there are over 100 types of HPV, with several strains considered high risk for causing cervical cancer.

A study from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) showed 26.8% of women aged 14 to 59 years tested positive for at least 1 strain of HPV with higher incidence in young women.

HPV doesn’t typically present symptoms and persists for many years. An infection can resolve spontaneously, but a persistent infection can cause abnormal changes in cervical cells, which develop into cancer over the course of several years.

It’s recommended women and men (both of whom can have HPV) get the HPV vaccine prior to reaching their teen years. HPV vaccine is usually administered to adolescents between 11 and 12 years. If HPV vaccination is started before age 15, a 2-dose schedule is recommended, with the doses given 6 to 12 months apart. For those starting the series after their 15th birthday, the vaccine is given in a 3-shot series.

HPV vaccine also is recommended for everyone through age 26 years, if they are not vaccinated already.

Some adults age 27 through 45 years who aren’t already vaccinated may decide to get the HPV vaccine after speaking with their doctor about personal risk for new HPV infections and possible vaccination benefits.

HPV vaccination prevents new HPV infections but does not treat existing infections or diseases. This is the reason why HPV vaccine works best when given before any HPV exposure.

You should get screened for cervical cancer regularly, even if you received an HPV vaccine.

If you’re a woman who has never been vaccinated against HPV and are age 45 years or younger, speak to your doctor about getting the vaccine to help prevent cervical cancer risk.

Use condoms.

HPV is contracted through unprotected sex, so it’s important to use protection during intercourse, especially if you haven’t had the HPV vaccine. HPV infection can occur in both male and female genital areas that are covered or protected by a latex condom, as well as in areas that are not covered. Condom use has been associated with a lower rate of cervical cancer.

Don’t smoke cigarettes.

Studies indicate smokers have an increased rate of developing cervical cancer when compared to non-smokers. What’s more, this risk increases when the number of cigarettes smoked daily increases. Smoking is associated with squamous cell cervical cancer.

Maintain a healthy diet and exercise routine.

Studies indicate a connection between a diet low in fruits and vegetables with increased likelihood toward developing cervical cancer. Keeping active and maintaining a healthy weight can also prove to decrease risk of developing cervical cancer. Being active and healthy eating can also strengthen your immune system, which if compromised by a lasting health condition, can increase risk of HPV if exposed and not vaccinated.

Adhere to regular screenings.

Today, Papanicolaou (Pap) testing is the primary screening for cervical cancer. It is valuable for detecting pre-cancerous cells and lesions, which are simpler to treat than invasive cancer. The conventional Pap slide “smear” and the newer liquid-based cytology use similar technologies in examining cervical cells for abnormalities.

Women age 21 years and older should have a well woman check-up annually to get appropriate exams and screenings. Annual pelvic exams and Pap tests every 3 years or more, depending on your doctor’s recommendation, are your best defense against cervical cancer risk.

Avoid having many sexual partners.

The greater the number of sexual partners and the greater your partner's number of sexual partners, the greater your risk of acquiring HPV.

Avoid early sexual activity.

Having sex at an early age increases HPV risk.

Reduce exposure to other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Having other STIs, like chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV/AIDS, also increases HPV risk.

Avoid using birth control pills for 5-plus years.

Long-term use of birth control pills has been proven to increase risk of cervical cancer.

Know your exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES.)

If your mother took this miscarriage prevention drug while pregnant during the 1950s, you may have an increased risk of a certain type of cervical cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma. Know and share this information with your gynecologist to determine the best screening care plan for you.

Cervical Cancer Screening Tests

Two screening tests can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early:

  • The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancers, cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they aren’t treated appropriately.
  • The HPV test looks for the virus (human papillomavirus) that can cause these cell changes.

Both tests can be done in a doctor’s office or clinic and are incorporated within a well woman exam from your gynecologist.

The Pap Test/Smear

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends cervical cancer screening begin at age 21 years regardless of sexual history. Cervical cytology screening is recommended every 2 years for women aged 21 to 29 years.

If you are over age 30 years, talk to your doctor about which testing option is right for you, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):

  • Pap test only. If your result is normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait 3 years until your next Pap test.
  • HPV test only. This is called primary HPV testing. If your result is normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait 5 years until your next screening test.
  • HPV test and Pap test. This is called co-testing. If both your results are normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait 5 years until your next screening test.

If you are age 65 years and older, your doctor may tell you that you don’t need to be screened anymore especially if you have had your cervix removed as part of a total hysterectomy for non-cancerous conditions, like fibroids.

Test Preparations

You shouldn’t schedule your test during your monthly cycle. Two days prior to your test, follow these guidelines for an accurate assessment:

  • Don’t douche (rinse the vagina with water or another fluid.)
  • Don’t use tampons.
  • Don’t engage in sexual intercourse.
  • Don’t use birth control foam, cream or jelly.
  • Don’t use vaginal medicine or cream.

Cervical Cancer Symptoms

Cervical cancer is preventable, but this is only true if you remain proactive. Being proactive through recommended screenings via Pap smear and/or HPV test and the HPV vaccine as recommended by your doctor greatly diminishes cervical cancer risk because these tools can detect early stage cervical cancer.

Unfortunately, by the time physical symptoms present, cervical cancer is usually in its later stage. The optimal care guidelines to avoid cervical cancer diagnosis are to incorporate cervical screening, testing and vaccine into your personal health plan.

Signs and symptoms of more-advanced cervical cancer include:

  • vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between periods or after menopause
  • watery, bloody vaginal discharge that may be heavy and have a foul odor
  • and pelvic pain or pain during intercourse.

If you have any one of these signs, see your doctor. They may be caused by something other than cancer, but the only way to know is to see your doctor and get an exam. Additionally, it’s vital to monitor your health and make an appointment to see your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that concern you.

Cervical Cancer Treatments

Cervical cancer is treated in several ways depending on the type of cervical cancer and how far it has spread.

Treatments can include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Choosing the treatment that is appropriate for you is a difficult process that can be made easier with professional, compassionate guidance from your local Capital Women’s Care team. Our family of knowledgeable health experts can help you and your family through the complex world of cancer screenings, diagnosis, treatment and follow-up care.

Women have unique healthcare needs, which is why it is so important to have regular well-woman visits. Data indicates women who have been screened are less likely to develop or die from cervical cancer, because screening reveals abnormalities in early treatable stages--a benefit that increases with age. Your local Capital Women’s care team offers comprehensive women’s healthcare, from screening and testing to diagnostic and treatment services and care. Our goal is to provide the best available healthcare to you and your family to help you achieve, maintain and enjoy optimal quality and longevity of life.

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