I hope everyone’s New Year is off to a great start! Hopefully no one has broken their resolutions yet 🙂 Did you know that January is Cervical Health Awareness Month? Ladies, do you know the recommendations for cervical cancer screening? What causes cervical cancer? Read on to find out what you should know.
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that originates in the cervix, which is the lower end of the uterus. The cervix connects the vagina to the uterus, which is where the baby grows when a woman is pregnant.
What causes cervical cancer?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) causes nearly all cervical cancers. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection and typically does not produce any symptoms. Often, it will go away on its own in time. According to the CDC, HPV infects one in four people in the United States.
There are actually many different types of HPV; some cause genital warts and other high risk types cause cancer over time.
Since HPV is sexually transmitted, having multiple sexual partners puts one at greater risk of contracting the infection.
And, luckily, there is a vaccine available for HPV which helps prevent the infection thus preventing cervical cancer (and several other types).
It seems there are some controversies surrounding the HPV vaccine. Current guidelines recommend that all children receive the vaccine at age 11-12. This is a different conversation for a different day, I plan to cover this in the future!
Other risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- Use of birth control for > 5 years
- Having given birth to three or more children
- Multiple sexual partners
- Having HIV or AIDS
What should I know about screening?
Because cervical cancer does not usually produce symptoms, particularly in the early stages, it is really important to stay up to date on screening. Regular visits to the gynecologist will help to keep on track with testing.
Many women are familiar with the Pap smear which is a test in which your provider takes a sample of cells from the cervix to look for cells that are pre-cancerous. A laboratory evaluates the sample.
Many women do not realize that the guidelines for cervical cancer screening have changed in the recent past. Here are the guidelines from The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists regarding frequency of Pap testing (this applies to women of average risk):
Under 21 years of age: No screening
21-30 years of age: Pap testing every 3 years
30-65 years of age: Pap testing plus co-testing for high-risk HPV every 5 years
Greater than 65 years of age (if adequately screened previously): No screening
Women who have had a hysterectomy with removal of the cervix and no history of high-grade precancerous lesion: No screening
Of course, this varies from woman to woman based on history and risk factors.
Keep in mind that Pap testing does NOT screen for uterine, ovarian, vaginal, or vulvar cancers.
Diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer
The gynecologist may perform a test called a colposcopy in the event of an abnormal Pap test. A colposcopy is a way of looking at the cervix with a magnified view to look for abnormal cells. The gynecologist may take samples for a biopsy during the test.
If cervical cancer is diagnosed, a referral is made to a gynecologic oncologist. Depending on the type of cervical cancer and how far it has spread, surgery, chemotherapy or radiation might be used. Another option may be a clinical trial.
In conclusion, now is a great time to make sure that your cervical cancer screenings are up to date. Pap tests are considered routine health maintenance so should certainly be covered by health insurance.
Disclaimer: Information contained in this post should not be substituted for medical advice. If you think you are having a problem, contact your own provider who knows your health history.