It wasn’t all that long ago that cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer death for women throughout the United States. However, the number of cervical cancer diagnoses and the number of deaths have gone down significantly in recent decades. The primary reason for the decrease? The regular occurrence of Pap tests, which are a crucial component of finding any precancerous cells before they turn into cervical cancer.
What Is Cervical Cancer?
While cervical cancer can certainly affect women at any age, those who are 35 to 44 years old are the most at risk. It can occur when healthy cells in your cervix (the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina) change and become abnormal. If not caught early, it can form a cancerous mass and potentially spread to other parts of the body, including the vagina, bladder, rectum, liver, and lungs.
Cervical cancer in its early stages typically offers no symptoms, but when more advanced, it can lead to abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as after intercourse, between periods, or after menopause. Other signs of cervical cancer in its later stages, if left untreated, can include a watery, bloody vaginal discharge or unusual pelvic plain.
Risk Factors of Cervical Cancer
Most, though not all, cervical cancer cases are closely linked to various strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection. While the body’s immune system often prevents HPV from causing any damage, the virus can occasionally survive for long periods of time, contributing to the process that can lead to cancer cells. Note that HPV is incredibly common, and most people with the infection will not develop cancer.
Your risk of acquiring HPV (and therefore cervical cancer) can increase when you have many sexual partners, engage in sexual activity at an early age, or are diagnosed with another sexually transmitted infection such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis.
One of the safest and most effective ways you can protect against HPV (and therefore many HPV-related cancers) is to get vaccinated. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the recommended age for HPV vaccination for girls and boys is 11 or 12 years old (or even as young as 9), ideally before becoming sexually active. Though approved for use in patients up to age 45, use of the vaccine in those aged 27–45 “should be the result of shared decision-making between patients and their physicians.”
Other increased risk factors for cervical cancer may include having a weakened immune system, prolonged use of birth control pills (five or more years), having given birth to three or more children, and smoking.
How to Prevent Cervical Cancer
Want some good news? You’re in luck! Cervical cancer tends to grow slowly, so there’s often ample time to discover and treat it before it becomes cancerous and causes serious harm. Early detection is key! This consists of scheduling and attending regular screening appointments (known as Pap tests) that can catch abnormal cervical cells. If any mutations are present, they can be more closely monitored or treated in order to prevent a development of cancer. ACOG currently recommends that women aged 21–29 have a Pap test conducted every three years, and women aged 30–65 have a Pap test and an HPV test every five years. How often you should have a cervical cancer screening and which ones can further depend on your age and health history — speak with your OBGYN healthcare provider to determine the best course of action for you.
Contact Beaches OBGYN at (904) 241-9775 for more information or to schedule an appointment.