Cervical health is an essential part of well-health screenings and can help detect cervical cancer, one of the more preventable types of cancer. January is Cervical Health Awareness Month and highlights the steps that can help prevent cervical cancer.

According to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, more than 13,000 people are diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer every year. And while any case of cancer is one too many, cervical cancer rates were once much higher and more deadly than they are now. Cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer deaths among women in the United States, but several developments have led to dramatic positive change.

Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most men and women will be infected with one of the strains of HPV at some point. Currently, 80 million Americans are infected with HPV, with 14 million additional infections yearly. In most cases, the virus will stay present in the body and will go away, like many viruses do, within a couple of years. There are more troublesome strains that will remain in the body and can cause different types of cell changes that can lead to cancer.

According to the CDC, there are a few ways the medical community can approach prevention detection, and treatment. The introduction of the HPV vaccine, regular Pap smears, and tests to detect the presence of HPV have dramatically reduced the incidence of cervical cancer in the United States.

HPV Vaccine

Development of the HPV vaccine was a game-changer for preventing this kind of disease. Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV, a virus with many strains. Some strains of the virus can cause genital warts while other strains cause few or no symptoms but can lead to changes in the cervix over time that cause cancer if left undetected and untreated.

Although adults can get the HPV series of vaccinations up until age 45 (it is most recommended up until age 26), it is highly recommended for youths beginning around age 11 or 12. Receiving the vaccine before any potential exposure to HPV can prevent infection with the virus, but isn’t a treatment if the virus is already present.

Screening

Increasing attention to screening for cancerous changes in the cervical cells with Pap smears and for detection of any HPV levels in cells (two separate tests that can be done at the same visit) has upped the detection rate of more treatable precancerous changes. If cervical cell changes are detected, treatment options are available and will depend on the findings. Removal of the precancerous cells may be recommended to prevent cancerous changes. And a positive HPV test with a normal Pap smear offers valuable information that may lead to more frequent screening to catch changes early.

Talking to Patients and Families

Despite its effectiveness, rates of HPV vaccination lag behind what many medical professionals consider ideal. If patients and families in your practice seem hesitant, it might help to offer a few facts. The vaccine is to prevent cancer, but because HPV is transmitted sexually, some families relate the vaccine with condoning sex. The more you can separate the two so that the concern is for long-term health and is for potential exposure, the more success you might have. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ HPV Champion Toolkit is another resource to help increase vaccination rates which will lead to fewer cases of cervical cancer.

The most important prevention for preventing cervical cancer is to keep up with regular screenings. If you haven’t had a Pap smear in a while or have been postponing your annual visit because of a packed schedule, put it back on your high-priority, staying healthy list. Outcomes are drastically different when these changes are caught at a treatable stage.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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