Cervical Cancer: Prevent It by Being Proactive

Michelle Langaker, DO, FACOG (OB/GYN) 

According to the National Institute of Health, cervical cancer is the third most common type of cancer in women worldwide.  It begins when cells on the cervix, which is in the lower part of the uterus, turn into abnormal cells.  In 2012, more than 12,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer.  Of those, approximately 4,200 will die.

The American Cancer Society sites several factors that increase a woman’s risk of cervical cancer.  The most common is the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is a sexually transmitted infection. HPV is found in nearly all types of cervical cancers.  Women who smoke are about twice as likely as non-smokers to get cervical cancer.  They also have increased risk if they have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, since their immune systems are suppressed.  Women with a diet low in fruit and vegetables may be at increased risk for cervical cancer, as well as those who have been using birth control pills for long periods of time.  For reasons not fully understood in the medical community, women who have had multiple full-term pregnancies – more than 3 – are more likely than others of getting cervical cancer, and those with a family history have a higher probability for contracting the disease.

Early cervical cancer generally produces no signs or symptoms; that’s why it’s so important to have an annual Papanicolaou (Pap) test.  Symptoms that can signal the possibility of cervical cancer include pelvic pain or pain during intercourse; vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between periods, or after menopause; and watery, bloody vaginal discharge that may be heavy and have a foul odor.

When cervical cancer is detected in its earliest stages, treatment is more likely to be successful.  Cervical cancer tends to occur between the ages of 20 and 50. However, women who have been getting regular tests to screen for cervical cancer before they were 65 rarely get the disease.  I strongly encourage my patients to schedule regular cervical cancer screenings. Most guidelines suggest beginning screening at age 21. During a Pap test, your doctor brushes cells from your cervix and sends the sample to a lab to be examined for abnormalities.  If cancer cells are detected, there are a variety of good treatment options available. I also suggest to patients under the age of 26 to get the HPV vaccine, which protects against two types of HPV that cause cervical cancer.

The goal is to give the vaccination prior to the onset of sexual activity; however, it can be given after a person is sexually active as well.  It is important to inform our children that having the vaccine does not mean they should become sexually active and that there are many, many other considerations to be made prior to becoming sexually active.

I want all of my patients to have happy, healthy lives with the joy of seeing grandchildren and great-grandchildren while achieving all their goals.  For your health and to be there for your family, take time out of your hectic schedule to take care of yourself. I encourage all women to get regular Pap tests and exams by healthcare providers, to quit smoking, to exercise regularly, and to eat a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables. You owe it to yourself and to those you love to be proactive and take personal responsibility for your health.

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