Cervical Cancer Awareness

In the United States, deaths due to cervical cancer have declined by more than 50% over the last 30 years.  An amazing triumph that is credited to the effectiveness of cervical cancer screening or the “Pap test”. 
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month and before it ends I thought we should review the basics of what a Pap test is, how often we need to get it done, and get some tips on how to prevent our chances of developing HPV and pre-cancerous lesions.
If you’re still confused about what your annual well woman’s exam entails and what the connection between HPV and cervical cancer is, you might want to review these two previous blogs:
“Open wide!”, and no, you’re not at the dentist.  A guide to you’re annual well-woman’s exam
HPV:  It’s so “in” you didn’t even know you had it.  A guide to HPV and cervical cancer screening

Here are a few quick facts about HPV and cervical cancer:

–  A Pap test is a sampling of the cervical cells to detect any early changes that may indicate pre-cancerous cells
–  Human Papillomavirus is a main cause of cervical cancer
–  HPV is a sexually transmitted disease and very prevalent
    – An article published in JAMA estimates that by the age of 50 more than 80% of American women will have contracted at least one strain of HPV   in their lifetime
–  Cervical cancer is a slow growing cancer and very rare in young women before the age of 30.
–  Younger women will be infected more often with HPV but also tend to clear the HPV virus quicker than older women
Here is an abbreviated version of the recommended guidelines for cervical cancer screening:
– under the age of 21: No Pap testing regardless of sexual activity
– between 21-29 years of age: Pap only every 3 years, no co-testing with HPV
– between 30-65 years of age: co-testing, high risk HPV and Pap test every 5 years
– if you have had a hysterectomy and cervix removed for non-cancerous reasons: no longer need Pap testing
– women over the age of 65 with normal Pap test for the last 10 years:  no longer need further Pap testing
There are exceptions and adjustments to these guidelines based on specific circumstances.
Because not all patient populations have a reliable follow up and some patients are high risk, the guidelines are just that….Your doctor will use her own clinical judgment based on your individual history and risk factors and will treat you accordingly.
**Note:  these are recently updated guidelines–you no longer need a Pap test every year, but you should still go see your gynecologist every year!  A “well-women” exam is more than just a Pap-test!  Read “Open wide”…and no you’re not at the dentist.  for a better appreciation of your annual gyne visit.
Now the important stuff!  
What can we do to decrease our chances of contracting HPV and preventing cervical cancer?
1. Stick with what works
Stay current with your Pap test!  Cervical cancer screening has been shown to be an effective tool in decreasing the rate of cervical cancer in the U.S.   Women today who are diagnosed with cervical cancer are usually those who have not had a pap “in years”.   Don’t let that be you.  If you haven’t had a Pap since your last pregnancy and your “baby” is now in college—Girl, pick up the phone and call your gynecologist today please!
2.  Protect yourself against HPV
Yes, the odds are most women in their 30-50’s already have been infected with HPV.  But you may have cleared that initial strain.  If you are sexually active, use condoms and get vaccinated!  The vaccine is recommended for boys and girls starting as early as age 11-26.  If you are past the age of 26 and would like to get the vaccine you may have to pay out of pocket but still can be eligible to receive it–and benefit from it as well.  
As with any decision you make, when it comes to sexual partners…be smart and selective!  
3.  Time to quit
Smoking increases the amount of HPV in your body and increases your chances of developing cervical cancer 2-3 time more than someone who doesn’t smoke.  So not cool.
An excellent reason to stop smoking…..especially if you were recently diagnosed with HPV.
4.  You guessed it!!
The list wouldn’t be complete without diet and exercise! Women who are overweight are at higher risk for developing cervical cancer.  And consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables loaded with antioxidants helps decrease your risk for all cancers!  So why delay–get started today ladies!  Grab your lunch bag and load it up with those tomatoes, cucumbers, oranges, apples, cheese sticks, bananas…anything you have to keep you from going through the drive thru or down to the cafeteria for the fried chicken today!
You can do it!
Cervical cancer symptoms: 
If you are having any signs of irregular vaginal bleeding, abnormal discharge, foul odor, pain or bleeding after intercourse–call your gynecologist and schedule a visit.
As always:
get educated about your body, become engaged in your choices, and empower yourself to make changes in your lifestyle…and eventually in the world around you!