Cancer in the Cervix
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and now is a great time to visit your gynecologist for your annual wellness visit and screening. Understanding cervical cancer is key in prevention, and there are steps you can take to lessen your chance of developing cancer. This type of cancer starts in the cells lining the cervix – the passageway that connects the uterus with the vagina. Cancer starts when cells in the cervix begin to grow out of control.
Although cervical cancer begins from cells with pre-cancerous changes, only some women with pre-cancers of the cervix will develop cancer. For most women, pre-cancerous cells will go away without any treatment. But, in some women, pre-cancers turn into invasive cancers. Treating cervical pre-cancers can prevent almost all cervical cancers.
The most important thing you can do to help prevent cervical cancer is to get vaccinated and have regular screening tests. A cervical cancer screening aims to find pre-cancer or cancer early when it is more treatable and curable.
The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for pre-cancers; cell changes on the cervix that might become cancerous if not treated appropriately. Your doctor will use a plastic or metal instrument, called a speculum, to widen your vagina. This helps the doctor examine the vagina and cervix and collect a few cells and mucus from the cervix and the area around it. The cells are sent to a laboratory to be checked to see if they look normal.
The HPV test looks for the human papillomavirus, a virus that can cause cells to change and lead to cervical cancer. If your result is normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait five years until your next screening test.
When should I get screened?
If you are 21 to 29-years-old, you should start getting Pap tests at age 21. If your Pap test result is normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait three years until your next test.
If you are 30 to 65-years-old, talk to your doctor about which testing option is right for you.
- A Pap test only: If your result is normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait three years until your next Pap test.
- An HPV test only: This is called primary HPV testing. If your result is normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait five years until your next screening test.
- An HPV test along with the Pap test: This is called co-testing. If both of your results are normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait five years until your next screening test.
If you are older than 65, your doctor may tell you that you don’t need to be screened anymore if:
- You have had normal screening test results for several years.
- You have had your cervix removed as part of a total hysterectomy for non-cancerous conditions, like fibroids.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. There are many different types of HPV. Most infections cause no symptoms and go away without treatment, but some HPV infections can cause health problems, including genital warts and cancer. While there is no treatment for the HPV virus, a vaccine can help lower your chances of getting HPV. The HPV vaccine prevents those strains responsible for 70% of cervical cancer.
The American Cancer Society recommends that boys and girls get the HPV vaccine between the ages of 9 and 12. Teens and young adults through age 26 who are not already vaccinated should get the HPV vaccine as soon as possible. This vaccine can help prevent cancers linked to the HPV virus. Teens who start the series late may need three shots instead of two. The HPV vaccine is available for women and men through age 45. For some women aged 27-45 years who are previously unvaccinated, their OB/GYN may base their need for the HPV vaccination on the patient's risk for getting a new HPV infection and whether the HPV vaccine may provide benefit.
What else can I do to help prevent cervical cancer?
- Use condoms during sex
- Limit your number of sexual partners
- Don’t smoke
Women who smoke are about twice as likely as those who don't smoke to get cervical cancer. Tobacco by-products have been found in the cervical mucus of women who smoke. Researchers believe that these substances damage the DNA of cervix cells and may contribute to the development of cervical cancer. Smoking also makes the immune system less effective in fighting HPV infections.
It is important to see your gynecologist regularly. Screenings and vaccines are easy and are performed in your doctor’s office.
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