Cervical Cancer is Preventable If Screened

Contributed by: Heather Pulaski, MD, Assistant Professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology

Certical Cancer ScreeningScreenings can save lives! It’s proven especially with cervical cancer. Yet approximately 8 million U.S. women – or one in 10 women – ages 21 to 65 years have not been screened in the past five years, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC also reports that as many as 93% of cervical cancers could be prevented by getting screened and receiving the HPV vaccine.

The CDC report , based off of data from a 2012 survey found that a majority of women surveyed cited lack of health insurance and not having a regular health care provider as reasons for not getting screened. Each year, more than 12,000 women get cervical cancer in the United States. Cervical cancer can often be found early and sometimes prevented entirely by regular screenings. If detected early, it’s one of the most successfully treated cancers. January is Cervical Cancer Screening Awareness Month and we’re taking this opportunity to raise awareness about how women can protect themselves from cervical cancer and human papillomavirus (HPV).

Signs and Symptoms of Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer usually has no symptoms in the early stages. However, abnormal vaginal bleeding is the most common symptom of cervical cancer once it’s progressed. Some of the most common symptoms are:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding. The bleeding can occur after vaginal intercourse, after menopause, between or during menstruation but can be heavier than usual.
  • Unusual vaginal discharge. The discharge may contain some blood and may occur between menstruations or after menopause. The discharge may also have an unpleasant odor or be watery.
  • Painful intercourse. Pain during intercourse or shortly after.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and the HPV Vaccine

HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that’s passed through genital contact. There are more than 100 types of HPV – 40 of them can infect the genital area. At least 50% of people who have had intercourse will have HPV at some time in their lives and most will not even be aware they’re infected because of lack of symptoms and in most cases, the immune system is able to clear the virus within two years. An effective way to protect against the virus, for both young men and women is to get vaccinated. The HPV vaccine helps prevent infection against the HPV types that cause most cervical cancers. To aid in the fight against the virus and cervical cancer, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved an updated version of the Gardasil vaccine called Gardasil 9 (http://www.fda.gov/newsevents/newsroom/pressannouncements/ucm426485.htm). This offers protection against nine strains of the virus and has the potential to prevent roughly 90 percent of cervical, vulvar, vaginal and anal cancers. The updated vaccine is approved for use in females ages 9 to 26 and males ages 9 to 15.

Pap Test

Most women ages 21 to 65 should get a Pap test as part of their routine gynecologic health care. Even if a woman isn’t sexually active, a Pap test is still recommended to screen for cervical cancer. Pap tests can find abnormal cervical cells before they turn into cancer cells. The frequency of Pap tests can depend on age, medical history, or sexual activity. It’s best to talk to your doctor about how often you should receive a Pap test.

Receiving proper gynecological care throughout your lifetime is the single most important thing you can do to maintain your reproductive health. Annual gynecologic exams are a good opportunity for potential health risks to be diagnosed early or even prevented. Don’t wait for a problem to arise schedule an appointment today.

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