This year approximately 11,000 American women will learn they have cervical cancer and nearly 4,000 will die from the disease. Some medical experts believe that through a successful education, screening and vaccination program for women, we have the potential to nearly eliminate cervical cancer in the U.S. But we still have much work to do.
As part of Cervical Health Awareness Month, CNCA is sharing important information that every woman needs to know to protect her health -- from risk factors and prevention measures to screening procedures and treatment options.
The Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which is transmitted through sexual contact, is the single known cause of cervical cancer. While there are many forms of the HPV virus, the “high-risk” forms are those associated with cervical cancer. Two types, HPV 16 and HPV 18 account for more than 70% of all cervical cancer cases. HPV may go away on its own, but if it does not, it may cause cervical cancer over time.
Women can reduce their risk of contracting the HPV virus by:
- Being vaccinated as an adolescent, before becoming sexually active
- Using a condom during sex
- Limiting your number of sexual partners
- Not smoking
Two vaccines are available that protect against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers. It is given in a series of three shot to girls as young as 9 and women up to age 26.
It’s important for sexually active women to have regular gynecological check-ups that include screening for HPV and/or cervical cancer. There are two lab tests that a doctor may perform. Both involve collecting cells from the cervix.
HPV Test – This test looks for the presence of the HPV virus, including high-risk strains. Some doctors routinely suggest this test in addition to the pap test.
Pap Test -- A pap test screens for abnormal cell growth that may lead to cancer. Women should start getting a regular pap test at age 21, or within three years of the first time you have sex.
Depending on your age, number of sex partners, test results, and other factors, your doctor may vary the frequency of these tests.
If you don’t have health insurance or can’t afford screening tests, you may be a able to get a free or low-cost Pap test through the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. To learn more, call 1-800-CDC-INFO or your local public health department.
Abnormal Pap Tests:
If a Pap test indicates abnormal cells, they will be classified by stage of advancement and further tests such as a colposcopy or biopsy may be ordered to determine the best treatment option.
Early stage, pre-cancerous conditions usually involve freezing or removing the abnormal tissue followed by more frequent screenings for a period of time.
Fortunately, cervical cancer develops very slowly in most women and regular Pap tests should identify worrisome changes in time for treatment. The prognosis is better when the cancer is found early.
Cervical cancer may not cause noticeable signs or symptoms until it has reached advanced stages. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:
- Vaginal bleeding.
- Unusual vaginal discharge.
- Pelvic pain.
- Pain during sexual intercourse.
Depending on the stage of the cancer, treatment may include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
National Cervical Cancer Coalition
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Cancer Institute