When was the last time you saw your doctor for a well-woman exam? Having a yearly gynecological exam is a crucial element of preventive healthcare for women and is key to the early detection and treatment of cervical cancer.
January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, and this year, nearly 13,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with cervical cancer. At one point in time, cervical cancer was one of the deadliest forms of cancer among women in the U.S. But due to an increase in screening over the last 40 years, both the number of cases of cervical cancer and deaths from the disease have declined dramatically.
While cervical cancer rates may not be as high as those of other forms of cancer, it’s essential to remember the importance of cervical health and to have yearly gynecological exams.
Here are five things every woman needs to know about cervical health.
1. Cervical cancer is caused by a common virus.
Changes in the cervix that may indicate cancer are caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV. Every woman who is sexually active is at risk for HPV and will likely get it at some point in her lifetime, although very few HPV infections lead to cervical cancer.
HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact or sexual contact. It can cause an infection in the cervix, which typically doesn’t last long because the body is able to fight it. In some women, however, it can last longer and may lead to pre-cancer or cancer.
2. Regular testing for cervical cancer is one of the best ways to detect cervical cancer.
Receiving a routine Pap test or HPV test is the best way to detect cervical cancer in its early stages, when it is small and easier to treat. Although a Pap test itself cannot tell if you have or had HPV, it will reveal changes to cervical cells, which may indicate HPV or cancer.
Current recommendations for the Pap test are as follows:
- Pap test every three years for women between the ages 21 and 29.
- Pap and HPV test every five years for women between the ages 30 and 64, or Pap test alone every three years.
- If you are over 65, ask your doctor if you need to continue routine Pap tests.
- If you have ever had an abnormal Pap test, your doctor may recommend more frequent screening.
- Certain factors may increase your risk for developing cervical cancer. Talk to your doctor about your health history to determine how frequently you should be tested.
In the past, healthcare officials recommended yearly Pap exams. However, we now know that the changes in cervical cells that lead to cancer occur over a 10 to 20 year period, so annual testing is not necessary.
3. Even if you’ve had the HPV vaccine, you should still get tested.
A routine HPV vaccination is the best way to prevent cervical cancer. Those are given to girls and boys at age 11 or 12, and may be started as early as age 9. Women who have received the HPV vaccine should still follow the recommended screening plan listed above.
4. If you test positive for HPV, don’t worry.
Just because you have tested positive for HPV doesn’t mean you have or will have cervical cancer. In healthy women — especially younger women — the HPV virus will generally go away on its own without developing into cancer.
It is very common for women to test positive for HPV. If you do, your doctor will recommend testing again in six to 12 months. There is no treatment for HPV, but if you have changes in your cervical cells due to HPV, those changes can be treated before they become cancer. Cervical cancer may be treated with surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation.
5. HPV often has no symptoms, but cervical cancer may.
Abnormal cervical cells can occur without symptoms, but if those changes develop into cancer, you may experience symptoms, including:
- Abnormal bleeding between menstrual periods, after sex or after menopause.
- Lower belly or pelvic pain.
- Pain during intercourse.
- Abnormal vaginal discharge.
If you have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, turn to the trained experts at the Goshen Center for Cancer Care, who are skilled in the most advanced cancer treatments, including surgery, radiation and medical oncology. We also combine effective natural therapies and supportive services to improve your well-being before, during and after cancer treatment. Contact us today to learn more about how we treat cervical cancer.