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January is Cervical Cancer Screening Awareness Month

Written by Lauren Smaldone, ANP

Happy New Year! It is a brand new year, a new decade, and the perfect time to empower yourself with lifesaving knowledge.

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix or the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women. As a result of preventative measures, this death rate has dropped significantly, however according to the Center for Disease Control, cervical cancer remains one of the most common gynecological cancers in the United States.

According to the National Cancer Institute in 2019 the estimated number of new cases of cervical cancer in the United States was approximately 13,170 (0.7% of all new cancer cases) and there were approximately 4,250 deaths from cervical cancer (0.7% of all cancer deaths). In the United States, Hispanic women are most likely to get cervical cancer, followed by African-Americans, American Indians and Alaskan natives.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

Unfortunately, early-stage cervical cancer generally produces no signs or symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control, signs and symptoms of more-advanced cervical cancer include vaginal bleeding after intercourse between periods or bleeding after menopause. Other symptoms are watery, bloody vaginal discharge that may be heavy and have a foul odor and pelvic pain or pain during sex.

What causes cervical cancer?

It isn't clear what causes cervical cancer, but it's certain that Human Papillomavirus (HPV) plays a role. HPV is transmitted by having sex. When exposed to HPV, the body's immune system usually is able to prevent the virus from doing harm. However, in a small percentage of people, the virus survives for years, contributing to the process that causes some cervical cells to become cancer cells. Other risk factors include immune system deficiency, smoking, and socioeconomic factors such as not having access to preventative services.

How do I protect myself?

There are preventative methods that women can take to reduce their risk of developing cervical cancer.

First: Establish a relationship with your primary care provider or gynecologist

This is important because it allows you to have the most updated screening information and the opportunity to discuss any questions or concerns that you may have. Screening guidelines are updated every few years and it is essential to have an advocate to help guide you through the process.

Second: Have routine cervical cancer screening tests, also known as pap smears

The Papanicolau or pap smear tests are completed during a pelvic exam and should begin when you are 21 years old. During a pelvic exam, you lie on an exam table and a speculum is used to visualize the vagina. This speculum allows the provider to view the cervix and upper vagina. Cells are removed from the cervix with a brush. The timing of pap smears varies, you can learn more about the guidelines set by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

Most women in their 20s with normal pap results require a pap test every three years. Most women in their 30s-60s with normal pap results require a pap test and screen for HPV every five years. Women with certain risk factors require more frequent pap screenings. These risk factors include history of cervical cancer, an abnormal pap test, history of HIV and history of weakened immune system. It usually takes 3-7 years for high grade changes in cervical cells to become cancer. Routine pap screening tests are essential because they can detect these changes in cells before they become cancer. Women with low-grade changes are tested more frequently to see if their cells return to normal. Women with high-grade cancers can receive treatment to have the cells removed.

HPV vaccine

Third: Talk to your doctor about the HPV vaccine

The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical cancers. HPV can also cause other kinds of cancer in both men and women. You heard that correctly. This vaccine can protect against cancer. The best time to get this vaccine is before you are exposed to any types of HPV which is why it is recommended for preteens aged 11 to 12 years, but can be given starting at age 9. HPV vaccine had been previously recommended for everyone through age 26 years. However, some adults aged 27 through 45 years who are not already vaccinated may decide to get the HPV vaccine after speaking with their doctor about their risk for new HPV infections and the possible benefits of vaccination.

The bottom line

Despite these highly effective preventative methods, many women do not receive the recommended screenings and interventions. Research has shown that common barriers to care include feelings of embarrassment, fear of finding cancer, anxiety about procedure, lack of knowledge, male physician, cost transportation and language barrier. Transgender men are also less likely to receive the necessary screening for cervical cancer. Our goal, through education, is to reduce these barriers and ensure access to lifesaving measures.

The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of HeyDoctor, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

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