nearly 13,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer. Thanks to advanced vaccination
and screening options, cervical cancer is one of few cancers that’s
highly preventable and treatable.
Cervical Health Awareness Month. In collaboration with the
American Cancer Society, healthcare organizations across the country are actively fighting cervical
cancer on all fronts. We’re helping more women get tested, understand
their diagnosis, and get the treatments they need. And we’re supporting
new research to help prevent, find, and treat cervical cancer.
Frederick Regional Health System, we believe it all starts with education. This month, join us in learning
more about cervical health and what you can do to prevent cervical cancer.
Understanding Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer starts in the cells lining the cervix, or the lower part
of the uterus. Typically, the normal or healthy cells of the cervix will
gradually develop pre-cancerous changes that evolve into cancer. These
changes can be detected during your Pap screening, which is recommended
every 3 years for women ages 21 and older. If abnormal cells are found,
they can be treated to prevent cancer from developing.
Only some women with pre-cancerous cells will actually develop cancer.
For most women, pre-cancerous cells will go away without any treatment.
For others, these cells turn into true (or invasive) cancers. In 2018,
the American Cancer Society estimates about
13,240 new cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed—about 4,170 women
will die from cervical cancer.
What is HPV?
HPV is short for Human Papilloma Virus. Most HPV types cause warts on the
skin, on the arms, chest, hands, or feet. Other types can be found in
the body’s mucous membranes, such as the vagina, anus, mouth, and
throat. It’s important to note that genital HPV is
not the same as HIV or herpes.
HPV can be passed from person to person by skin-to-skin contact and sexual
activity. It’s a very common infection—most men and women
who have ever had sex get at least one type of genital HPV in their lifetimes.
You can have HPV even if it has been years since you were sexually active,
and even if you do not have any signs or symptoms.
HPV is especially devastating to women because nearly all cervical cancers
are caused by HPV. That’s why screenings are so important—cervical
cancer can be found early and even prevented with routine screening tests.
The Pap screening looks for changes in cervical cells caused by HPV infection,
while the HPV test looks for the infection itself.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to prevent HPV infection. However,
there are some things you can do to lower your chances of being infected.
Consider the HPV vaccine, using condoms during sexual activity, and limiting
your number of sexual partners. And, most importantly, get tested.
Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines
Early screening offers the best chance of finding and treating cervical
cancer and HPV that can lead to cervical cancer. The sooner you’re
screened, the earlier abnormal cervical cell changes can be detected and
treated before they turn into cervical cancer.
When found early, cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treated
cancers. In the U.S. alone, the
cervical cancer death rate declined by more than 50% over the last 30 years, primarily thanks to Pap test screenings.
According to the American Cancer Society,
these guidelines should be followed to help detect early cervical cancer:
- All women should begin screenings at age 21. Women aged 21-29 should have
a Pap test every 3 years.
- Women 65 years and older who have had regular screenings in the previous
10 years should stop cervical cancer screening as long as they haven’t
had any serious pre-cancers found in the last 20 years.
- Women aged 30 to 65 should be tested with a Pap test combined with an HPV
test every 5 years—or every 3 years with just the Pap test.
Women at higher risk of cervical cancer because of a suppressed immune
system (due to HIV or organ transplants, for example) or those who were
DES (diethylstilbestrol) in utero may need to be screened more often. Please follow your healthcare
- Women in this age group with a history of CIN2 or CIN3 should continue
screenings for at least 20 years after the abnormality was found.
- Women of any age should NOT be screened every year by any screening method.
Women who have been vaccinated against HPV should still follow all recommended
- Women who have had a hysterectomy without removal of the cervix should
continue screenings as recommended.
- Women who have had a total hysterectomy should stop screening—unless
it was done to treat cervical pre-cancer.
These guidelines do not apply to women who have been diagnosed with cervical
cancer, cervical pre-cancer, or HIV infection. These women should have
follow-up testing and cervical cancer screening as recommended by their
Signs and Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
Women with early cervical cancers and pre-cancers often show no symptoms—that’s
why it’s so important to have regular screenings by your healthcare provider.
However, there are several risk factors that increase your chance of developing
- Being overweight
- Being younger than 17 at your first full-term pregnancy
- Chlamydia infection
- Diet low in fruits and vegetables
- Diethylstilbestrol (DES)
- Family history of cervical cancer
- Having a weakened or suppressed immune system
- Having multiple full-term pregnancies
- HPV infection
- Intrauterine device (IUD) usage
- Low-income status, or lack of access to adequate healthcare services
Most women do not experience symptoms until a pre-cancer becomes a true
invasive cancer and spreads to other tissues. If this occurs, you may
experience these symptoms:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Abnormal vaginal discharge
- Pain during intercourse
While these symptoms are not always related to cervical cancer, you should
consult your healthcare provider immediately if you are experiencing any
of these symptoms. Otherwise, begin regular screenings as recommended
above to monitor your cervical health.
Prevention and Treatment Options
One of the number one ways to prevent cervical cancer is with a screening
to find pre-cancerous cells before they become invasive. The second is
to prevent the pre-cancerous cells before they begin. Here are a few things
to do to prevent pre-cancerous cells and cancers:
- Don’t smoke
Get vaccinated for HPV
The American Cancer Society recommends
routine HPV vaccination for girls and boys starting at age 11 or 12, and also for females 13 to 26 years old and
males 13 to 21 years old. Males ages 22 to 26, men through age 26 who
have sex with men, and people with weakened immune systems (including
people with HIV infection) may also be vaccinated.
- To lower your risk of exposure to HPV, consider limiting your number of
sexual partners and avoiding sex with people who have had many other sexual partners
- Use condoms to protect against HPV
Once worrisome cells have advanced to true invasive cancer, an
oncology care provider will determine the best options for treatment depending on the stage of
the disease. In addition to the stage of the disease while diagnosed,
your provider may also consider other factors like your age, general health,
lifestyle, and personal preferences. For example, cervical cancer can
affect your ability to have children, so younger women diagnosed with
cancer may prefer a treatment option that takes these factors into consideration,
should they want kids later in life.
The most common forms of treatment include:
- Radiation therapy
- Targeted therapy
For earlier stages of cervical cancer, surgery or radiation plus chemotherapy
may be used. For cases at later stages, radiation plus chemotherapy is
the main treatment. Chemotherapy alone is often used to treat advanced cancers.
Our expert team of cancer specialists will always help you make the best decisions for your needs.
We can’t stress enough the importance of regular screening. Cervical
cancer rarely presents any symptoms in its early stages, which makes it
all the more important to screen for pre-cancerous cells as early as possible.
Screening can treat most abnormal cells before they have the chance to
turn into cervical cancer, and significantly increase chances of survival.
Don’t skip your annual well woman visit. Schedule an annual appointment
with your primary care provider today to discuss your screening options.
If you don’t have a provider, consider
Monocacy Health Partners Primary Care. We’re open 7 days a week, we offer weekday evening appointments,
and walk-in hours Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturdays
and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at our
194 Thomas Johnson Drive, Suite A office.
If you need assistance in accessing medical care, please contact the
Monocacy Health Partners CARE Clinic at 301-360-2574.
Frederick Regional Health System is here to help you protect yourself from HPV and cervical cancer.