Cervical Health Awareness Month Presents Opportunity To Inform & Educate

April 1, 2021
April 1, 2021

Thanks to advanced testing techniques alongside heightened awareness, deaths from cervical cancer continue to decline. Even so, there’s no such thing as too much information, which is why January is Cervical Health Awareness Month.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), cervical cancer is the most common form of cancer linked to HPV (human Papillomavirus) in women, and usually begins with pre-cancerous changes. The ACS explains that these pre-cancers, which are caused by HPV, can be found and treated before they evolve into cancer. And it’s important to note that these pre-cancers often have no symptoms — but their cells can be detected through regular screening, and then removed.

With that in mind, let’s now take a look at the two main types of tests, or screening, used to detect cervical cancer:

  • Pap test. This examination discovers early cell changes so they can be treated before they become cancer.
  • HPV test. This testfinds HPV infections that can lead to cell changes and cancer. HPV infections are very common, and usually the body fights them off before they can cause problems. Some infections, however, lead to cell changes that might cause cancer. An HPV test can help doctors decide if a woman is at increased risk of getting cancer before pre-cancer cells are present. It also may be done along with or without a Pap test.

Who Should Be Tested, and When?

The American Cancer Society has created specific guidelines for screening, all revolving around the idea that ongoing testing allows for earlier detection and more successful treatment. Here’s how those break down:

  • All women should begin cervical cancer screening at age 21.
  • Women ages 21 to 29 should have a Pap test every three years. They should not be tested for HPV unless it is needed after an abnormal Pap test result.
  • Women ages 30 to 65 should have both a Pap test and an HPV test every five years or have a Pap test alone every three years.
  • Women over age 65 who have had regular screenings with normal results should not be screened for cervical cancer. Women who have been diagnosed with cervical cancer or pre-cancer should continue to be screened as their doctor recommends.
  • Women who have had their uterus and cervix removed in a hysterectomy and have no history of cervical cancer or pre-cancer don’t need to be screened.
  • Women who have had the HPV vaccine should still follow the screening recommendations for their age group.
  • Women who are at high risk for cervical cancer may need to be screened more often. Those risks include: HIV infection, organ transplant, or exposure to the drug DES.

The ACS also points out that women usually don’t need a Pap test or HPV test every year, because it generally takes much longer than that — 10 to 20 years — for cervical cancer to develop and frequent screening often leads to procedures that are not needed.

HPV Vaccination Is Another Key Line of Defense

Another way to prevent cervical cancer? Have the HPV vaccine, thus eliminating the virus which is known to cause almost all cervical cancers and also increases the risk for other cancers and genital warts that can affect both men and women.

According to the ACS, the HPV vaccine helps prevent infections that can cause six different types of cancers, including cervical cancer. Because the vaccine works best in younger people, it’s recommended that girls and boys alike should begin the series as early as age 9, or at age 11-12. If they do not get the vaccine during that window should still get it until they are 26 years old.

How effective is it? According to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is evidence that the HPV vaccine is significantly reducing the number of cervical precancers, or lesions that can become cervical cancers, and also can provide protection from the types of HPV infections that can cause cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and throat.

For those worried about the vaccine’s safety, consider this: More than 270 million doses have been given worldwide, 100 million of those in the United States. Some temporary side effects include headache, fever, pain, or redness where the shot is given, and special care should be taken by those who are allergic to yeast or any other ingredient in the vaccine. All told, the HPV vaccine is a great way to help ward off cervical and other cancers long before they become a reality, and alongside regular testing should be a part of an overall health and wellness regimen.