Cervical cancer: Early detection important

January 13, 2017

January has been designated Cervical Health Awareness month as a way to educate the public about the importance of good cervical health. Women who have not had a recent screening should talk about their need with their primary care provider.

Cervical cancer does not have to kill. Yet, about 4,000 women a year will die from the disease and nearly 12,000 will receive its diagnosis.

Fortunately, this cancer is largely preventable and, if detected early, curable. Regular screenings and vaccinations remain important to early detection and prevention. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages women to start regular screening tests at age 21.

Cervical cancer forms in the cervix, which is the lower, narrow part of the uterus, and is most often caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). This cancer develops slowly, starting as a precancerous condition known as dysplasia. If untreated, dysplasia can turn into cervical cancer, which can spread to the bladder, intestines, lungs, and liver. Symptoms of cervical cancer may include abnormal vaginal bleeding, unusual discharge, periods that last longer or have a heavier flow than usual, and bleeding after menopause. Some women may have no symptoms at all.

To detect cervical cancer, physicians use a screening called the Pap test or Pap smear, which looks for abnormalities in cells obtained from the cervix. When abnormalities are found, further testing or follow-up is needed. This may include an HPV test to check for the presence of high-risk strains of HPV that are most likely to cause cancer. There are more than 100 different kinds of HPV, and not all of them create health problems. A biopsy of the cervix and/or removal of the cancerous cells may be performed.

Prevention of cervical cancer comes in the form of two vaccines, Gardasil® and Cervarix®,that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration – they work by triggering the body to produce antibodies to protect against infection. Both vaccines are effective against two types of high-risk HPVs that cause about 70 percent of cervical cancers.

It is important to vaccinate early, as the vaccines are effective only if given before a woman is infected with HPV. The CDC recommends females between 11 and 26 years old receive the HPV vaccine. Primary care providers may also recommend teen boys and men, who can carry HPV, get vaccinated to prevent the spread of the virus.

West Shore Medical Center providers offer Pap tests and HPV vaccinations.

For more information about cervical health, women should contact their health care provider. For those who need a primary care provider, call 800-533-5520.