Dr. Carolyn's Corner
CERVICAL HEALTH AWARENESS MONTH: get the word out!
January is recognized as Cervical Health Awareness Month. This is a global effort to help women gain knowledge about cervical cancer, a disease that is largely preventable, and highly treatable if caught early. As with so many diseases, prevention and early detection are critical.
It has been known for some time now that cervical cancer is primarily caused by certain types of HPV, (Human Papillomavirus), a sexually transmitted infection. Almost everyone who is sexually active will be exposed to this virus at some point in their lives. By age 50, approximately 80% of women have been infected with some type of HPV. About 90% of the time, the virus will go away on its own; however, when it persists, abnormal cells in the cervix can begin to grow and over time pre-cancerous conditions or cancer may develop.
These statistics should make us realize the importance of having routine screening with Pap smears (and HPV testing when recommended by our physician). The Pap test is a collection of cervical cells which are studied microscopically for abnormal changes. The HPV test detects the presence of any of the high-risk HPV types. It does not determine when exposure to the virus occurred; nor does it address whether abnormal or cancerous cells are present. The physician will use the results of these tests to help decide if further study of the cervix is necessary and to plan follow-up.
When is routine screening performed? The most recent (2009) guidelines from the American College of Obstetrics-Gynecology recommend the following:
First pap smear at age 21
Women 21-30 years of age should be tested every two years
Women over 30 can be tested every 3 years, after having 3 consecutive normal paps
Women over 65, after having 3 normal paps and no abnormal paps in the previous 10 years may consider no further routine screening
Women who have undergone a hysterectomy (both uterus and cervix removed) for benign causes do not need pap smears, unless the hysterectomy was performed for precancer or cancer.
Each woman should understand that these are just guidelines and that she and her physician should decide when screening is appropriate for her.
Many of us could come up with all kinds of excuses—"It's uncomfortable", "I don't have time to wait in that doctor's office", "I'll do it later", "I'm too busy right now"—to avoid having these simple yet life-saving tests done. The worst excuse is "I don't need an exam and I don't have any symptoms anyway." Precancerous changes and early cervical cancer typically do NOT produce symptoms. We need to understand that this is what "screening" is all about—detecting problems early, at a stage when they are still curable.
On the other hand, it is wise to know what symptoms may appear and to have them evaluated immediately: abnormal or irregular vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain unrelated to the menstrual cycle, unusual vaginal discharge, often blood-streaked or with an odor, and bleeding after intercourse.
I encourage you to make an appointment today for a routine exam and pap test. You shouldn't even have to think twice about it. It may just save your life!
Call my office with any questions. We work for your health.
Dr Carolyn Cavazos