More than 13,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer each year, but the disease is preventable with vaccination and appropriate screening. If you haven’t had a pap test or HPV test recently, January is the perfect time to schedule one with it being designated as Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. Cervical cancer is a slow-growing form of cancer that occurs when the cells from the cervix grow abnormally within other tissues and organs outside the cervix.
It is important to be screened because cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body. Cervical cancer often doesn’t cause any signs or symptoms until it has spread outside the cervix. Some signs of cervical cancer are:
Bleeding from the vagina not from your period,
Spotting or discharge from the vagina,
Pain during sex.
If you have any of these signs, contact your provider. They may be caused by something other than cancer, but the only way to know is to see your provider and get an exam.
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. HPV stands for human papillomavirus and is a common virus that can be passed from person to person during sex. Both men and women can have HPV. For most women, HPV will go away on its own, but if it does not, there is a chance over time it can cause cervical cancer. Things that can increase your risk of cervical cancer include having HIV, smoking, using birth control pills for a long period of time, having given birth to three or more children, and having several sexual partners. Many women with these risk factors will not develop cervical cancer, but it is important to monitor them.
The American Cancer Society recommends that cervical cancer screening should begin at age 25. There are two screenings that can help with early detection - the pap test that looks for pre-cancers and the HPV test that looks for the virus that can cause cell change. There is an HPV vaccine that protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine produces the strongest immune response in preteens. To work best, it should be given between the ages of 9 to 12. The vaccines are given in a series of shots. Contact your child’s primary care provider if you have questions about the HPV vaccine.