January is National Cervical Cancer Screening and Awareness Month – which for many might just be one more awareness month. Unless, of course, you are one of 3.52 billion women worldwide and therefore at risk of cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is the presence of abnormal cells on the cervix, the lower part of the uterus, opening into the vagina. The most common cause of cervical cancer is a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV), a result of sexual contact with someone who has the virus. And HPV is a common virus. Over 20 million men and women are currently infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and approximately six million more become infected each year.
According to cancer.org, cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treatable cancers. And early detection allows for successful treatment – through surgery, chemotherapy or radiation.
Signs of cervical cancer include abnormal bleeding, abnormal discharge or pain during sex – but an abnormal pap smear is often one of the first signs. A pap smear is done during a pelvic exam and includes obtaining a small sample from the surface of the cervix to help identify any cell changes. As long as results are negative, the American Cancer Society recommends pap smears every three years for women aged 21-29 and every five years for women aged 30 to 65. In addition, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends that women see their provider every year for a breast and pelvic exam, even if they are not due for a pap smear.
Another important prevention tool is the HPV vaccine. According to the CDC, the HPV vaccine can be given in two doses, at least six months apart. It is often given at the same time as vaccines for whooping cough and meningitis. Depending on your age, the vaccine may require three doses.
The CDC reports that the vaccine is most effective prior to any HPV exposure – therefore, it is recommended based on age, not sexual experience. It is recommended for both females and males starting at age 11 or 12. The vaccine, however, can only be administered to females under the age of 26 and males under the age of 21. The CDC emphasizes that you should not wait until you have reached puberty or started having sex to be vaccinated. Getting the vaccine at the recommended age could be a decision that prevents cancer when you are older.
However, it is important to mention that the HPV virus is only transmitted through sexual contact. Therefore, another way to avoid the virus is to limit your number of sexual partners and practice safe sex, using condoms. It is equally important to mention that the HPV virus can be contracted at any age once you become sexually active. An HPV test is recommended every five years for sexually active adults aged 30-65.
Awareness months become more important once you are aware of the featured health issues and how they could potentially impact your health or the health of someone you love.
If you’d like to see a provider for an exam or more information, contact Valerie Martin at our Women’s Health Clinic. For more information on the HPV vaccine, contact Public Health.