The U.S. Congress designated January as Cervical Health Awareness Month. Cervical cancer is the second most common type of cancer for women worldwide, but because it develops over time, it is also one of the most preventable types of cancer.
Cancer is a disease in which cells in the body grow out of control; it is always named for the part of the body where it starts, even if it spreads to other body parts later. When cancer starts in the cervix, it is called cervical cancer. The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus.
The human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the main cause of cervical cancer. HPV is a common virus that is passed from one person to another during sex. At least half of sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lives, but few women will get cervical cancer. The latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics from 2010 indicate that in the United States, 11,818 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer and 3,939 died from it.
Early on, cervical cancer may not cause signs and symptoms, but advanced cervical cancer may cause bleeding or discharge from the vagina that is not normal for you, such as bleeding after sex. These symptoms may be caused by something other than cancer, but the only way to know is to see your doctor.
Cervical cancer is highly preventable, since screening tests and a vaccine to prevent HPV infections are available. When cervical cancer is found early, it can be treated; it is associated with long survival rates and good quality of life for patients.
All women are at risk for cervical cancer, but women older than 30 are at a higher risk. Other factors that can increase your risk of cervical cancer are smoking, having HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) or another condition that weakens your immune system, using birth control pills for a long time (five or more years), having given birth to three or more children, and having several sexual partners.
Cervical cancer is the easiest female cancer to prevent, with regular screening tests and follow-up. Two screening tests that can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early are the Pap test (or Pap smear) and the HPV test. The Pap smear is done to look for precancerous cells – cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately; the HPV test is done to identify the virus (human papillomavirus) that can cause these cell changes.
Talk with your doctor, nurse or other health care professional about whether the HPV test is right for you. The Pap test is recommended for all women between ages 21 and 65. It is one of the most reliable and effective cancer screening tests available.
The only cancer for which the Pap test screens is cervical cancer. It does not screen for ovarian, uterine, vaginal or vulvar cancers. So even if you have a Pap test regularly, if you notice any signs or symptoms that are unusual for you, see a doctor to find out why you're having them. If your Pap test results are normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait three years until your next test.
Getting the HPV vaccine is one way to prevent cervical cancer. The vaccines are given as a series of three shots over six months to protect against HPV infection and the health problems that infection can cause. Two vaccines protect against cervical cancers in women; one vaccine also protects against genital warts and cancers of the anus, vagina and vulva. Both vaccines are available for females.
HPV vaccines offer the best protection to girls and boys who receive all three vaccine doses and have time to develop an immune response before being sexually active with another person. That's why HPV vaccination is recommended for preteen girls and boys at age 11 or 12. HPV vaccines also are recommended for teen boys and girls who did not get the vaccine when they were younger, teen girls and young women through age 26, and teen boys and young men through age 21.
For more information about cervical cancer, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at www.cdc.gov or talk to your health care provider. Remember, you may reduce your risk of cervical cancer if you use a condom every time you have sex, delay first intercourse, have fewer sexual partners, avoid smoking and get vaccinated against HPV.