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Vaccination, Regular Screenings Can Win Fight Against Cervical Cancer

January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month

No woman should die of cervical cancer. All women should be screened regularly starting at age 21.

The American Cancer Society reports that cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women. Thankfully, over the last 30 years, the cervical cancer death rate has gone down by more than 50%. The main reason for this change is increased use of screening tests which can find changes in the cervix before cancer develops. Such screening can also find cervical cancer early—in its most curable stage.

Even with improved detection, an estimated 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, and, of that number, approximately one-third will die as a result of the cancer.

The American Social Health Association (ASHA) and the National Cervical Cancer Coalition (NCCC) have named January Cervical Health Awareness Month to encourage women across the country to get screened for cervical cancer and to receive the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine if they’re eligible.

“Science has put us in a remarkable position to protect women from cervical cancer, but technology is only half the battle,” says ASHA president and CEO Lynn Barclay. “It’s imperative we continue efforts that not only promote greater access to health care, but that we also inform women about cervical cancer and the marvelous means we now have to prevent this disease.”

Cervical Cancer Risk Factors

In thinking about the following risk factors, it helps to focus on those you can change or avoid (like smoking or human papilloma virus infection), rather than those that you cannot (such as your age and family history). It’s still important, though, to know about risk factors that cannot be changed, because it’s even more important for women who have these factors to get regular Pap tests to detect cervical cancer early.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), cervical cancer risk factors include:

Human papilloma virus infection: The most important risk factor for cervical cancer is infection by the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is a group of more than 150 related viruses, some of which cause a type of growth called papillomas, commonly known as warts.

Smoking: Women who smoke are twice as likely as non-smokers to get cervical cancer.

Immunosuppression: Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS, damages the immune system and puts women at higher risk for HPV infection.

Chlamydia infection: Chlamydia is a relatively common kind of bacteria that can infect the reproductive system.

A diet low in fruits and vegetables: Women whose diets don’t include enough fruits and vegetables may be at increased risk for cervical cancer.

Being overweight: Overweight women are more likely to develop adenocarcinoma of the cervix, which can lead to cervical cancer.

Long-term use of oral contraceptives (birth control pills): Evidence has shown that taking oral contraceptives (OCs) for a long time increases the risk of cancer of the cervix. Research suggests that the risk of cervical cancer goes up the longer a woman takes OCs, but the risk goes back down again after the OCs are stopped.

Intrauterine device use: A recent study found that women who had ever used an intrauterine device (IUD) had a lower risk of cervical cancer.

Multiple full-term pregnancies: Women who have had three or more full-term pregnancies have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer.

Being younger than 17 at first full-term pregnancy: Women who were younger than 17 years of age when they had their first full-term pregnancy are nearly twice as likely to develop cervical cancer later in life than women who waited to get pregnant until they were 25 years or older.

A family history of cervical cancer: As with any cancer, a family history increases your risk.

Cervical Cancer Symptoms

Abnormal cervical cell changes rarely cause symptoms. But you may have symptoms if those cell changes grow into cervical cancer. Symptoms of cervical cancer may include:

  • Bleeding from the vagina that isn’t normal, such as bleeding between menstrual periods, after sex, or after menopause;
  • Pain in the lower belly or pelvis;
  • Pain during sex; or
  • Vaginal discharge that isn’t normal.

These signs and symptoms may also be caused by conditions other than cervical cancer. For example, an infection can cause pain or bleeding. Still, if you have any of these problems, you should see your health care professional right away—even if you’ve been getting regular Pap tests. If it’s an infection, it will need to be treated. If it’s cancer, ignoring symptoms might allow it to progress to a more advanced stage and lower your chance for effective treatment. A Pap test can find changes in cervical cells before they turn into cancer.

Don’t wait for symptoms to appear. Be screened regularly.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is common among women and is the main cause of cervical cancer. It’s estimated that at least 75% of the reproductive-age population has been infected with one or more types of genital HPV. In the vast majority of cases, the virus causes no symptoms or health problems and goes away on its own when a healthy immune system clears the infection. But, in approximately 5% of women, a persistent infection occurs with high-risk strains of HPV, which causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer.

Prevention

The HPV vaccine, which must be given in three doses over six months, can protect women against four HPV types—the two most common high-risk strains (HPV 16 and 18) and the two most common low-risk types (HPV 6 and 11). The vaccine should be given before an infection occurs, ideally, before a girl becomes sexually active.

Barclay notes it’s important for parents and primary care physicians to promote the vaccination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the inoculation for girls and women aged 11 to 26. Health care professionals are increasingly suggesting that teen boys and men get the vaccine as well.

ASHA’s Barclay reports, “Fewer than half of girls and young women who are eligible for these vaccines have completed the three-dose series, so increasing vaccine uptake is a priority for us.”

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), cervical cancer develops slowly, starting as a precancerous condition known as dysplasia. These abnormal cells are easily detected through a Pap test and can be treated effectively. There is also an HPV test that, when combined with a Pap test in women over age 30, can help identify women at risk for developing cervical cancer.

If left undetected, dysplasia can turn into cervical cancer, which can potentially spread to the bladder, intestines, lungs, and liver. Moreover, women may not suspect cervical cancer until it has become advanced or metastasizes, a fact which underscores the importance of regular Pap tests. Talk to your health care provider about what screening tests you need and how often you need them.

If you have questions about this or any other cancer-related healthcare issue, contact the providers at CCHC New Bern Cancer Center by calling (252) 636-5135 or visiting www.newberncancercare.com .

(Sources: American Cancer Society; American Social Health Association; National Cervical Cancer Coalition; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, WebMD; National Institutes of Health; CCHC New Bern Cancer Care.)