Oak Hills Womens Center

Cervical Cancer - Can and how do we prevent it?


January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month

What a perfect time this is for women to start the "checklist" of things to do to improve their health this year. Perhaps you could call it one of your resolutions--a simple one, at that!

Since January has been designated as Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, let's make prevention of cervical cancer number one on our list. It is, after all, largely a preventable disease if detected early enough. According to the American Cancer Society, about 12,000 women are, unfortunately, diagnosed yearly in the U.S. with invasive cervical cancer, and almost 4,000 will die from it. These numbers are even higher in underdeveloped countries around the world. Routine pap smear screening has reduced the death rate from cervical cancer in the U.S. by almost 75% over the past 50 years. Even though this disease makes up only 2% of all cancers in females in our country today, it is still a significant, yet often silent, killer. Half of all of those affected are between 30 and 55 years of age.

Many women, young and old alike, are unaware of the risk factors for cervical cancer, and "don't think it will happen to me". Simply put, cervical cancer is almost always directly related to an infection with a sexually transmitted virus called HPV, or human papillomavirus, and therefore truly should be preventable. Other known risk factors include intercourse beginning at an early age, multiple sexual partners, smoking, weak immunity (such as in HIV patients), personal history of other sexually transmitted infections (such as chlamydia) or premalignant cervical disorders. Some factors which may also increase risk are obesity, long term use of oral contraceptives, many pregnancies, and lower socio-economic status.

Cervical cancer and pre-cancer usually have no early presenting symptoms or warning signs, which is why screening tests such as pap smears are so important. Patients with invasive cervical cancer may notice an unusual vaginal discharge, abnormal vaginal bleeding, vaginal odor, or pain. These should be evaluated immediately, especially in women who have not kept up with routine screening and annual gyn exams. Almost everyone has heard of HPV, but few women really know how common this infection is. Each year in the U.S. 6.2 million cases are diagnosed. Approximately 70% of all sexually active people (both males and females) will get HPV at some point in their lives. Fortunately, a healthy immune system in most people will clear the virus. When it does not, cancer and other diseases can develop. There is no way to predict who will or won't clear the virus. Because the virus often has no signs or symptoms, it is most often first detected on screening pap smears or physical exams. Also, males are not typically screened for HPV, so there is no way to know whether a woman's sexual partner could expose her to it.

As with so many diseases, PREVENTION is the key. Every woman should:

  1. Control her risk factors
  2. Have routine pap smears
  3. If a candidate, consider use of FDA approved HPV vaccines for those types known to cause cervical cancer
  4. Have HPV testing done when recommended by your physician
  5. Use condoms to help prevent exposure to STD's
  6. Avoid sexual activity at an early age
  7. Limit the number of sexual partners

Make smart decisions about taking care of yourself. This month start that checklist and be sure that pap smear is at the top of it! Congratulations if you're already up to date. Use your extra time to encourage friends and loved ones to do the same.

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