Along with the changing leaves, we’re seeing a lot of pink this month. For years, the color pink has been linked with breast cancer and the month of October is dedicated to breast cancer awareness. While it’s great that breast cancer receives so much awareness, I want to draw attention to another type of cancer that affects millions of women and doesn’t get as much publicity: cervical cancer.
The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus. Cervical cancer strikes women of all ages and is caused by the human papillomavirus or HPV. Women can get HPV from having sexual contact with someone who has it. Anyone can have HPV for years and not realize it – there are often just a few symptoms, including abnormal vaginal bleeding and pain. There are several strains of the virus, including one that can cause abnormal cells on the cervix to grow out of control, leading to cancer.
Unlike some cancers that are hard to detect, such as ovarian, cervical cancer can be detected early. During an annual pelvic exam, a medical provider takes a sample of cells from a woman’s cervix and sends them to the lab to be tested. The Pap test is one of the most reliable cancer screening tools available to doctors. All women between the ages of 21 and 65 should talk with their physician about how often they need to have a Pap test done. It used to be recommended that it should be done every year, but now for some women – based on their history – it can be done every two or three years. If abnormal growth is spotted during the test, the doctor may then do a biopsy to learn more. If cancer is detected, treatment options include having a hysterectomy although the removal of the uterus can be avoided if the cancer is caught early. If the cancer has spread beyond the cervix, chemotherapy and radiation therapy may also be needed.
Women can decrease their odds of getting cervical cancer by having the annual Pap test and if younger than 26, they can ask their doctor about the HPV vaccination, which helps the body fight off the virus. The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that all boys and girls should receive the vaccination in their early teen years as a way to cut down on the number of cervical cancer cases.
By getting annual screens, women can reduce their chances of contracting cervical cancer. The Pap test is a simple test that saves lives.
Scott Schuldes is a certified family nurse practitioner and associate medical director at ThedaCare Physicians-Hilbert. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.