Because January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, it’s a prime opportunity to get the facts about early detection and schedule a women’s health screening. It’s also a great time to mention that a regular pap smear has helped drop the cervical cancer mortality rate by a whopping 50 percent over the last 40 years.
“Cervical cancer is a preventable disease, and the incidence has diminished in the last five to eight years due to the institution of the HPV vaccine, and the use of the HPV cotesting procedure, now performed at most practices,” said Dr. Daniel Donato, gynecologic oncologist at Rose Medical Center.
A lower mortality rate doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take risk factors for cervical cancer seriously or skip your pap test. An estimated 12,000 women will receive a cervical cancer diagnosis this year, and 4,000 of those women will die from the disease.
Get the facts about risk factors and prevention to reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer doesn’t have obvious symptoms.
Unlike other forms of cancer, early cervical cancer and its precursors don’t have physical symptoms that signal you might have the disease. But, once cervical cancer has advanced, warning signs start to appear.
When cervical cancer has grown into other structures, symptoms like abnormal bleeding between periods, pain or bleeding during intercourse, and abnormal discharge throughout the menstrual cycle may appear.
A pap smear is your best tool for prevention.
Because it takes a long time for precancerous lesions to turn into cervical cancer, a pap smear is still the best early detection tool. Right now in the United States, most women diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer hadn’t gotten a pap test. A pap smear is an important diagnostic tool because it can detect precancerous lesions, which allows us to intervene and prevent cancer from developing.
“HPV is the cause of cervical cancer, and it is a prerequisite to this disease. This is why HPV testing is now done for all patients over 30 years of age, along with traditional pap testing,” said Dr. Donato. “HPV testing is not performed in patients under the age of 30, as the incidence of ‘asymptomatic’ HPV infection is high, and most are able to clear the infection without the development of high-grade precancers and cervical cancer.”
HPV poses the greatest risk for developing cervical cancer.
Other risk factors can increase your odds of developing cervical cancer, by HPV is at the top of the list. 15 out of the 10,000 types of HPV are considered cancer causing and lead to 70 percent of cervical cancers worldwide. Women can get an HPV test at the same time as a pap test. A positive test result means your physician will tell you what type of HPV you have and recommend a course of action.
You can guard against cancer-causing HPV with vaccines.
Gardasil and Cervarix are vaccines that protect girls and women ages nine to 26 from HPV linked to cervical cancer. Additionally, Gardasil can protect boys and men from genital warts, around 90 percent. Note that vaccinations work best before a person becomes sexually active. While vaccines can protect against 70-80 percent of cervical cancers, you may still be at risk of getting another type of HPV. Vaccines reduce risk but don’t eliminate it.
“The goal of the HPV vaccine is to inoculate patients who have not been previously exposed to the HPV virus, and that is the reason for giving it to preadolescents. The effectiveness of the vaccine diminishes in patients who have already been exposed to the virus,” said Dr. Donato. “Although protective against cervical cancer, the vaccine is not absolute, and that is why continued screening is still required.”
Your doctor can tell you how often you need a pap test.
Certain risk factors may increase your chance of getting cervical cancer, so talk to your doctor about the best plan of action to catch the disease before it turns into precancerous lesions. Certain risk factors may cause your physician to recommend a yearly pap smear before, during or even after menopause. These include your family medical history, smoking habit, being overweight, and your number of sexual partners.
“Testing for postmenopausal patients, and patients with prior hysterectomy, should be based on risk for cervical cancer in individual patients. Not all of these patients would require continued testing,” said Dr. Donato. “Check with your gynecologist about your specific risk factors.”