January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, and it’s essential to raise awareness and encourage education about what causes cervical cancer and how to prevent it.
Each year in the United States, approximately 200,000 women are diagnosed with cervical precancer or abnormal cells on the cervix, leading to cancer. And another 13,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Although these numbers sound scary, the good news is that cervical cancer is one of the most preventable kinds of cancer – if caught early.
The first step to prevention is education. It’s vital to know what steps you need to take for early detection, so you can catch precancerous cells before they develop.
Keep reading to learn how to prevent cervical cancer.
Causes of Cervical Cancer: Human Papillomavirus
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. It is also the most common cause of cervical cancer and many other cancers of the genitals.
Studies show that HPV causes approximately 90% of all cervical cancer in the United States.
There are more than 100 strains of HPV, and at least 14 can cause cancer. HPV is transmitted through unprotected sex, putting sexually active people at risk.
Approximately 79 million Americans have been infected with HPV. HPV can cause genital warts, but most people who have HPV show no symptoms, which is why the virus can go undetected.
HPV can linger in the body for years undetected, changing cells and compromising the immune system. Some people develop cervical cancer decades after their exposure to HPV.
This is why HPV prevention and early cancer cell detection is so crucial.
Gardasil 9 is currently the only licensed HPV vaccine available in the United States. Gardasil 9 protects against nine strains of cancer and genital wart-causing HPV.
HPV vaccines are incredibly safe. Before they were licensed, HPV vaccines were tested on tens of thousands of people. Since licensing, millions of people in the United States have been vaccinated against HPV with no serious side effects reported.
The CDC recommends that all children ages 11-12 get vaccinated against HPV before becoming sexually active. Vaccination before sexual activity is the most effective way to protect against HPV.
It is still highly recommended that adults 26 and under receive the HPV vaccine. Even though many sexually active people have already been exposed to some strains of HPV, the vaccine can protect against exposure to other strains.
Adults 27 and over may consider getting the HPV vaccine and are encouraged to speak to their doctor about the benefits of the vaccine as an adult.
Studies have confirmed that in women who get vaccinated against HPV, there is a 90% decrease in cervical cancer incidences. If you or your children haven’t yet been vaccinated against HPV, book an appointment today to protect yourself and your loved ones from genital warts and cervical cancer.
Screening for Cervical Cancer
Because early detection is key to preventing cervical cancer, screening for cervical cancer is vital.
The Pap test is the most common procedure to screen for cervical cancer. It is an easy and effective test that provides results in a short period of time.
During a Pap test, a medical professional uses a speculum to open the vagina, allowing for a clear view of the cervix. The doctor then uses a small brush to scrape cells from the cervix. A swab is used to collect cells from the endocervix.
The sample collected during the Pap test is sent to a laboratory for analysis. If the cells are observed to be abnormal or precancerous, additional testing and possible treatment will be necessary.
Your medical professional can conduct an HPV test at the same time as your Pap test. For the HPV test, a second swab is used to collect more cells that will be analyzed for HPV.
Most women find the procedure mildly uncomfortable, but it should not hurt. A Pap test and HPV test takes only about five minutes.
Starting at age 21, all women should begin to get regular pap tests. In your 20s, you should get a pap test every three years. Regular testing is the only way to recognize early-stage cervical cancer because there are no symptoms for early-stage or pre-cervical cancer.
If a Pap Test Detects Abnormal Cells
If a Pap test detects irregular results, your medical professional will recommend follow-up tests. The most common test for abnormal cervical cells is called a colposcopy.
If you need to have a colposcopy, don’t panic. A colposcopy is a simple and fast procedure and does not mean that you have cervical cancer.
In a colposcopy, your medical professional will visually examine your cervix with a magnifying lens to detect any visual abnormalities.
If abnormal cells are identified, your doctor may perform a small biopsy of tissue for laboratory analysis. The biopsy is done quickly, and most women describe it as a pinching sensation.
Once your biopsy results are finalized and examined by your medical professional, they will discuss the next steps. In most cases, low-grade cervical changes are observed and simply need to be monitored to ensure they don’t turn cancerous.
While this whole process can sound overwhelming at first, appointments are quick and easy. And monitoring any abnormalities and treating them accordingly can prevent cervical cancer from developing.
Prevent Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer is easily preventable with early detection and HPV vaccinations.
Early-stage cervical cancer presents few symptoms, so make sure that you and your loved ones get regular Pap tests to detect any cervical abnormalities as early as possible.
The Pap test is the best way to screen for cervical cancer, and an HPV test and vaccine can prevent the development of abnormal cervical cells.