HealthONE - January 24, 2022

This #CervicalHealthMonth, Dr. Allison Staley fills us in on the importance of cervical health.

Has the pandemic affected your regular health routine? If so, you are not alone. More than 26% of women report that they have not had a well woman visit since the start of the COVID-related shutdowns in 2020. While there are many reasons visiting the gynecologist regularly is imperative, this #CervicalHealthMonth, experts are emphasizing the importance of regular cervical cancer screening exams—which are recommended for all women on a regular schedule.

“Deaths rates from cervical cancer have been falling over the last few decades, which is excellent news. This is due to normalizing Pap smears and the introduction of the HPV vaccine,” Allison Staley, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Swedish Medical Center explains. “However, we could easily lose this ground if women are failing to have their preventative care exams. These are health habits that can – quite literally—be lifesaving.”

To educate and encourage women to take charge of their cervical health, Dr. Staley is sharing five things you should know about your cervical health.

  1. All women are at risk for cervical cancer. HPV (human papillomavirus) is responsible for nearly all cases of cervical cancer. And 80% of women have had HPV at some point before the age of 50. “HPV is common in the population, and anyone who has been sexually active at any point in their lifetime is at risk,” Dr. Staley clarifies. “Most people who have HPV don’t even know it. For many women, it clears up without any noticeable symptoms. But having HPV puts you at an increased risk for cervical cancer, which is why it is so important for all women to have regular screening exams. Women who are immunocompromised, are HIV positive, or have had an organ transplant are at even higher risk and should speak with their women’s health provider regarding frequency of screening. And for those who have undergone vaccine, screening with pap smears and HPV testing is still recommended.”
  2. There is a vaccine for HPV. The good news is that, while HPV is very prevalent, a vaccine is available—and effective. The ideal schedule for the HPV vaccine is when children between the ages of 11-12 years old receive two doses, given six to 12 months apart. Both boys and girls should get the vaccine, and it can be given up to the age of 26. After the age of 26, the likelihood of exposure to HPV grows substantially, and it is no longer beneficial. “This vaccine is extremely effective with minimally side effects and an excellent safety profile. We are seeing reductions in HPV infections around 80%,” Dr. Staley encourages. “However, it only prevents new HPV infections. It doesn’t treat it if you already have it. So that’s why it is important to get the vaccine at a young age and continue to undergo cancer screenings regularly.”
  3. Get your PAP smear and understand why. Most women know that a Pap smear (Papanicolaou test) is a part of regular gynecologic care. During this routine procedure, a small brush is used to remove cells from the cervix and surrounding areas. The sample is then viewed under a microscope to check for the presence of cervical cancer, changes that may indicate the start of cervical cancer as well as other infections and inflammation. Pap smears don’t hurt, but they can be uncomfortable for a short time. The exam is usually very quick, lasting only a few moments. “Once you turn 21, you should start having a Pap smear regularly. We recommend if you have had a normal result, you only need to have a Pap every three years. Once you are age 30, then HPV testing begins with your pap smear. Pending results of these tests and your prior screening history, pap smear and HPV co-testing can space out to 5 years. Women at a higher risk for cervical cancer or with a history of abnormal results may need to have the test more often and should have that discussion with their women’s health provider,” Dr. Staley adds. Talk with your doctor about the best screening schedule for your specific health needs.

  4. Cervical cancer symptoms are rare. Rates of cervical cancer death are falling due to early detection and treatment. However, symptoms are rarely experienced before the disease has progressed. Dr. Staley says the following symptoms can be due to cervical cancer, but they also can be related to other diseases. If you experience these symptoms, she advises you to speak to a doctor as soon as possible who can run further tests or provide treatment.
    1. Light bleeding between or following your regular period
    2. Menstruation that is longer and heavier than normal
    3. Bleeding or pain after sex
    4. Bleeding after menopause
    5. An increase in cervical discharge

  5. You can reduce your risk for cervical cancer.

In addition to getting the HPV vaccine as appropriate and having regular Pap tests, you also can reduce your risk for cervical cancer through other healthy living habits. These include practicing safe sex, using condoms, limiting sexual partners, quitting smoking and get regular gynecologic exams. “Cervical cancer is unique in that it is a highly preventable cancer,” Dr. Staley encourages. “When found early, this cancer is highly treatable, and patients have long healthy lives after being treated for it.”

If you receive a diagnosis from a screening exam or experience symptoms, rest assured the team at the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Swedish Medical Center will work on your behalf to create an effective, customized treatment plan.  “We are looking forward to enhancing our already strong collaboration in the all-new cancer pavilion at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Swedish Medical Center,” Dr. Staley shares. “Here, we will be in close proximity with other providers, which is not only more convenient for our patients, but also allows us, as providers, to share resources, ideas and innovations. In doing so, we can offer the highest level of cancer care—from prevention to treatment and into survivorship.”

Learn more about plans to unveil the cancer pavilion at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Swedish Medical Center by visiting us online at healthonecares.com/swedishcancerpavilion.

Learn more about gynecologic oncology at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Swedish Medical Center here.

Allison Staley, MD, MPH is a board-certified, fellowship-trained gynecologic oncologist. She earned her Doctor of Medicine and Master of Public Health degrees from the University of North Carolina (UNC). She went on to complete her residency in obstetrics and gynecology, followed by fellowship in gynecologic oncology at the nationally recognized UNC Women's Hospital. Dr. Staley was expertly trained in a broad range of surgical techniques. She has extensive experience and a particular interest in minimally invasive surgery, including the robotic surgery platform.