Protect Yourself from Cervical Cancer

Monday, January 21, 2019

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, and cervical cancer is a cancer that each woman can take steps to reduce the likelihood of. To greatly reduce the risk of cervical cancer, everyone of all genders should get the HPV vaccine and people with a cervix should receive annual pap smears.

“Cervical cancer is a cancer that is almost 100% preventable,” says Dr. Jonathan Foote, a Bon Secours gynecologic oncologist. “Screening for cervical cancer helps detect pre‐cancerous lesions that can be treated before cervical cancer would develop. Also, HPV vaccination protects against the most common HPV strains that cause cervical cancer. Both of these interventions are the best way to prevent cervical cancer from developing.”

What is the Cervix?

The cervix is at the bottom of the uterus. It is the part that is dilated, or opened, during childbirth.

What is Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix. Cervical cancer is preventable, and when caught early is very treatable.

The HPV Vaccine

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a very common virus that can be a sexually-transmitted infection (STI) and cause genital warts. Most adults have had HPV at some point, and it usually causes no symptoms. HPV causes almost all cervical cancer, and there is a vaccine that targets the most common strains of HPV. Besides cervical cancer, HPV can also lead to other cancers for all people, including in the back of the throat and in genitalia.

The HPV vaccine is available and recommended for all preteens, around ages 11-12, although it is available from ages 9-26. It is available at pediatricians and primary care providers and is usually covered by insurance. The vaccine is given at a young age so that the person can develop immunity before they may be exposed to HPV. The HPV vaccine directly prevents cancer.  

The Pap Test or Pap Smear

A pap test or pap smear is a sample of the cells of the cervix to see if they may be showing changes that will later lead to cancer. A technician looks at the cells under a microscope to see if they look different than healthy cervical cells. If they look healthy, nothing more needs to be done and the pap smear is normal. If they look different from healthy cells, the pap smear is unclear or abnormal. A pap smear that is unclear or abnormal does not mean that you have cancer, because your cells can look different for many different reasons. If your pap smear is unclear or abnormal, talk to your doctor. You may need to get a colposcopy so you doctor can look more closely at your cervical cells. Having a colposcopy does not mean that you have cancer.

Pap smears are usually recommended every three years for patients who do not have any risk factors and have not had an unusual pap smear. If a person has risk factors, such as a mother with cervical cancer, or has had an abnormal pap smear, the pap smear may be done more frequently. Pap smears are usually done by a gynecologist, although primary care providers can also do them. Talk with your doctor to see how often you need a pap smear.

Cervical Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

Cervical cancer may not have any symptoms until it is advanced, so regular screenings with a pap smear are essential to catching it early. Cervical cancer is usually treated by a gynecologic oncologist, or a doctor who specifically treats cancer related to female genitalia. Depending on how advanced the cancer is, you may have surgery to remove your cervix, radiation, or chemotherapy. Your oncologist will discuss the options with you.

If your oncologist suggests surgery, ask about having a larger incision rather than a minimally-invasive surgery. “Recent studies in surgical treatment of early stage cervical cancer have suggested a decreased survival when using a minimally invasive approach (I.e. laparoscopic or robotic) when compared to laparotomy (larger incision),” says Dr. Christopher McCann, a Bon Secours gynecologic oncologist.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)