You Can Prevent Cervical Cancer
Every day nearly three women die of cervical cancer.
This disease, which affects about 10,000 women a year in the United States, has few warning signs or symptoms in its earliest stages.
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month in the United States. Women need to know that cervical cancer is almost entirely preventable. Screening, a healthy lifestyle and vaccination against a common virus can virtually eliminate your risk of developing cervical cancer.
What causes cervical cancer?
Almost every cervical cancer is related to infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV). More than 70 percent of cervical cancer cases can be attributed to two strains of HPV. This virus, which is acquired through direct sexual contact, is thought to be the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. By age 50, approximately 80 percent of women will have been infected with some type of HPV. You don’t have to have actual intercourse to be exposed to HPV -- any type of skin to skin contact can pass the virus. Nearly every woman who has had intercourse has been infected with this virus at some point in her life.
Fortunately, most of these infections are transient--about 80 to 90 percent of women will clear the virus on their own within two years, requiring no treatment. A small percentage will be unable to clear the virus and will have persistent infection. These women are at greater risk of developing cervical cell abnormalities which can lead to cervical cancer.
Women with weakened immune systems, such as those infected with HIV or women who have had organ transplants, are at increased risk of HPV infection, cell abnormalities and cervical cancer. Women who smoke are also at a greater risk, having 2-4 times the chance of developing cervical cancer as women who don’t smoke.
How do I know if I have it?
When cervical cells first begin to change, there are few symptoms. At more advanced stages of the disease, women may experience abnormal bleeding, unexplained pelvic pain or unusual vaginal discharge.
The best way to screen for cervical cancer is a Pap test. With this lab test, cells scraped from a woman’s cervix are observed for signs of unusual growth or changes. Between ages 21 and 29, women should undergo this simple screening test every other year. After age 30, a woman who has three consecutive normal Pap tests and no other risk factors can have the test every three years.
An abnormal Pap test could indicate the early pre-cancerous changes in a woman’s cervix. Not all changes in the cells are caused by cancer. Further testing needs to be done to determine the reason for the results. If cells show the early signs of pre-cancerous changes, treatment to remove those cells can be done before they change into cancer.
In countries like the United States, where many women routinely get Pap tests, the rates of cervical cancer are low. In the developing world, where few women get routine care, almost 500,000 cases of cervical cancer are identified each year --as many as 50 times more women than in the United States. Women who have access to this testing, but choose not to go to the doctor for this simple, quick screening, are putting themselves at risk.
How can this cancer be prevented?
A vaccine, called Gardasil, that can prevent the HPV strains that cause the majority of cervical cancers, was approved for use in 2006. The Centers for Disease Control recommend that girls 11 and 12-years-old be vaccinated before they reach the age of sexual activity. The CDC also advises a series of three shots to young women ages 13 to 26.
Boys should be vaccinated as well as girls. Boys not only carry the virus, but are themselves at greater risk for anal, penile or head and neck cancers if they contract certain types of HPV.
What treatments are available for cervical cancer?
Early detection is still the best option. This type of cancer takes many years to develop. When caught early, the five-year survival rate for cervical cancer patients is almost 100 percent.
Some cancer can be removed with localized surgery. Radiation, chemotherapy and hysterectomy can stop more advanced cancer’s spread. When the cancer has moved further throughout the body, treatment is far more difficult. The best option is to catch the cancer before more radical treatments are necessary.
Cervical cancer is completely preventable. Talk with your doctor about whether the HPV vaccine would be advisable for yourself, your children or grandchildren. Take advantage of the easy, early screening tools you have available to detect the disease in its early stages. The best treatment for cervical cancer is to never get it in the first place.
Schedule an appointment with your physician today.
Posted Date: January 2011