Vaccines and exams can help combat this preventable cancer
Each year, a relatively preventable and curable condition kills more than 4,000 women in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society.
But by working with their doctors, keeping up to date with proper vaccinations and regular check-ups, the dangers of cervical cancer can be greatly reduced.
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that most often affects women over the age of 30. It occurs in the cells of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. It was once one of the most common causes of cancer death in the country, but has dropped in occurrence thanks to better and increased testing.
“Screening with Pap smears and/or HPV testing allow us to detect changes in the cervix before they develop into cancer or to detect cancer early when it is easier to treat and cure,” says Dr. Tanya Pulver, a gynecologic oncologist at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago.
The drop in cases has slowed over the last decade, though. Dr. Pulver says there are still many obstacles to bring those numbers further down, but there are opportunities, too.
Because over 90% of cervical cancers are caused by a long-lasting infection from Human Papillomavirus, widespread immunization can help immensely.
While immunization rates have increased, 51% of adolescents have not completed the HPV vaccine series, according to the Center for Disease Control.
“Along with making sure women undergo screening for cervical cancer, preventing HPV infection is one of the best ways to reduce the number of cervical cancer diagnoses, and increasing vaccinations is the most effective way to do that,” Dr. Pulver says.
In addition, improving overall access to health care, educating women on the importance of follow-up after abnormal test results and reducing the embarrassment and discomfort women often feel when having pelvic exams or discussing their bodies remain significant areas of opportunity, she says.
Other risk factors for cervical cancer include tobacco use, obesity, having a suppressed immune system, early onset of sexual activity and having multiple sexual partners.
Although HPV is sexually transmitted, it is important for women to know the virus is extremely common among both men and women and that having HPV is not a sign of sexual promiscuity. It is vital to remove the shame and stigma associated with HPV and cervical cancer so women feel more comfortable undergoing screening and treatment for any abnormal test results.
Ultimately, much of the work to limit the spread of cervical cancer comes down to the relationship a patient has with their physician and regular, timely check-ups.
“Patients need to feel like they can speak up and have a voice in their care, particularly if they have concerns,” Dr. Pulver says.
You should talk to a doctor about whether a Pap test is right for you.
In addition, you should tell your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding (between periods or after intercourse)
- Vaginal bleeding after menopause, even if it is just light spotting or only occurs once
- Heavy periods that last longer than usual
- Pelvic pain, including pain during intercourse
- Increased vaginal discharge
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