Annual Cervical Cancer Screenings Vital

HPV Vaccine Can Lower Risk of Developing Disease

Most women are well aware of the screening process for breast cancer: monthly self-checks, annual clinical breast exams and annual mammograms after turning 40. There is another cancer, however, women need annual screens for – cervical cancer. This year, an estimated 12,820 women in the United States will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and that 4,210 women will die from the disease.

Women can be screened annually for cervical cancer during their well women check. During the Pap test, the medical provider takes a small sample of cells from the women’s cervix, which is located at the bottom of the uterus. After the cells are removed, they are then examined in the lab for any abnormalities. The Pap test is recommended every 3-5 years for women between the ages of 21 and 65.

Early-stage cervical cancer generally produces no symptoms, which is why getting the Pap test regularly is so important. The earlier medical providers identify the cancer, the easier it is to treat.

Advanced cervical cancer has several symptoms including irregular bleeding and pain during sex. Just over half of women with cervical cancer are diagnosed at this stage.

Cervical cancer treatment depends on what stage it is in when discovered. Women with early-stage cervical cancer are typically treated with surgery to remove their uterus. By removing the uterus – which is called a hysterectomy – early-stage cervical cancer can be cured and recurrence is prevented. Women with more advanced cervical cancer may have radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy before surgery to shrink a tumor or after the surgery to kill any remaining cells, especially if they have spread to other parts of the body. The 5-year survival rate for all women with cervical cancer is 68 percent.

Once a woman turns 30, she can choose to also be tested for HPV along with the Pap test. If both tests are normal, the chances of developing cervical cancer during the next few years is very low. At that point, a medical provider may allow you to wait up to five years before the next screening.

Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV (human papillomavirus), which is a common infection that spreads through sexual activity. An estimated 79 million Americans have HPV with many of them unaware they are affected since they do not show any symptoms.

To prevent HPV and cervical cancer, the Academy of American Pediatrics recommends that all pre-teen boys and girls receive the HPV vaccine, which makes the body immune to the virus. Men and women up to age 26 can still receive the vaccine, but note all women still need regular Pap tests to check for the cancer.

Cervical cancer is more easily treated when caught early, which is why the annual Pap tests are so important.

Michelle Soto, MD, is a family medicine physician with ThedaCare Physicians-Waupaca.