January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month
What is cervical cancer?
The cervix is the lowest part of the uterus, which opens at the top of the vagina during childbirth. Johns Hopkins Medicine notes that if the cells in the cervix begin to grow and change, they can become malignant and the cancer can spread to the uterus and surrounding organs.
What causes cervical cancer?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the highest risk factor for developing cervical cancer is carrying HPV, a common virus that can be passed from one person to another during sex. Worldwide studies have shown that HPV virus exists in more than 99 percent of cervical cancers and viral proteins play a role in the transformation of HPV-infected cells into tumor cells. HPV is very common and often causes no symptoms, so it can go undetected and often goes away on its own. While not all women carrying this virus will develop cervical cancer, it is important for women who know they carry the virus to have an annual Pap smear to check for changes in cervical cells.
Other things that can increase the risk of developing cervical cancer are smoking, being HIV positive, using birth control pills for more than five years, giving birth to three or more children and having multiple sexual partners.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, in its early stages, cervical cancer usually has no noticeable symptoms, which makes it critically important for women to have Pap smears, a test to collect cells from the cervix to check for abnormal cells or signs of malignancy. Some women do experience symptoms such as abnormal vaginal bleeding or unusual discharge, pelvic pain and pain during intercourse. These symptoms are not always signs of cancer, but it is always best to check with your gynecologist to be sure. Your doctor may recommend further screening, a pelvic exam or a biopsy.
How can you reduce your risk of getting cervical cancer?
CDC recommends the following ways to reduce your risk of getting cervical cancer:
- Have an annual Pap test (or Pap smear) starting at age 21.
- Have an (HPV) test to see if you have the virus that can cause cell changes.
- Get an HPV vaccination.
- Two HPV vaccines are available to protect females against the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers. Both are recommended for 11- and 12-year-old girls, and for females 13 through 26 years of age who did not get any or all of the shots when they were younger. Females should get the same vaccine brand for all three doses if possible. Remember that women who are vaccinated against HPV still need to have regular Pap tests because these vaccines do not protect against HPV types found in approximately 30 percent of cervical cancers.
- Don’t smoke.
- Use condoms during sex and limit your number of sexual partners.
Cervical cancer is very curable when detected early through screening with a Pap smear. Because precancerous lesions found by Pap smears can be treated and cured before they develop into cancer, and because cervical cancer is often detected before it becomes advanced, the incidence and death rates for this disease are relatively low in developed countries like the U.S. In places where there is limited access to health care and health screenings, however, the death rates are much higher.