As the second leading cancer for women worldwide with more than 11,000 new cases diagnosed yearly in the U.S., yet one of the most preventable cancers, education and awareness are two of the most important factors to help lower your risk of developing cervical cancer. I realize this sensitive topic is not one that most people look forward to discussing, but it is a very important topic to discuss, nonetheless, and can end up saving your life.
In honor of January being National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, I’ve outlined some of the most common questions that I receive daily. It is my greatest hope that the information in the Q&A below will broaden your awareness of cervical cancer, help alleviate initial worries, and encourage you to take a lead and be proactive in your own health.
- What is cervical cancer? According to the American Cancer Society, cancer in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus, usually starts when abnormal cells gradually develop from pre-cancerous changes to cancer. Most cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), by having sexual contact with someone who has HPV. Although this pre-cancer to cancerchange is typically gradual and develops over several years, sometimes it can happen rather quickly and unexpectedly, which is why early detection and regular screenings with your gynecologist is vital in ensuring optimized health.
- What is a cervical cancer screening and how often should I receive one? The Pap test (or Pap smear) is a screening test that looks for pre-cancers and abnormal cell changes on the cervix. This type of screening is recommended for all women, starting at the age of 21, regardless of sexual activity, and should occur every two years. Additionally, it is recommended that women receive the HPV test that checks for the virus that can cause abnormal cells. The HPV test helps your physician find suspicious changes and help prevent cancer from developing.
- What are initial signs and symptoms of cervical cancer to be aware of? Typically, women do not have any noticeable symptoms or changes within their body. However, some of the most common symptoms are vaginal bleeding, unusual discharge between periods or after menopause, and/or pain during sexual intercourse. Although cervical cancer may not be the only cause of these symptoms, if these unusual side-effects are experienced, you should contact your gynecologist immediately.
- Are there any preventative measures or steps to take to lower your risk?
- Avoiding exposure to HPV may help reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer. Having sex at an early age, multiple sex partners, and unprotected sex are some common sexual behaviors that increase your risk of developing an HPV infection, and can lead to cervical cancer.
- Not smoking can reduce your risk of developing cervical pre-cancer and cancer.
- Getting vaccinated can provide great protection for women from HPV infections.
- What are treatment options for cervical cancer? As with most cancers, treating cervical cancer depends on a variety of factors, including the stage of the cancer, the size and shape of the tumor(s), the age and general health of the woman, and the lifestyle. Advancements in technology continue to dramatically reshape health care, giving patients the option to explore and receive the treatment that best fit health needs and personal preferences. Perhaps one of the newest treatments for cervical cancer that has resulted from the development of technology is robotic surgeries, a minimally-invasive, safe, and easy-to-perform procedure to treat many gynecological health issues.
The increased benefits of early detection pose the importance of women of all ages to stay informed and educated on all female cancers, including cervical cancer, to reduce your risk. I urge you to utilize your physician and take advance of the resources the community offers by education yourself, receiving recommended screenings and vaccinations, and taking action if you notice changed within your body, to considerably decrease your chances of developing a harmful disease.
Marlan Schwartz, M.D., FACOG, is a robotic surgeon and chief of OB/GYN at Somerset Medical Center.