The month of January marks a new year on the secular calendar, a month to make resolutions for a better healthier you. January is also international Cervical Cancer awareness month. Nearly 13,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with Cervical Cancer each year. The disease is virtually always preventable with vaccination and appropriate screening (Pap and HPV tests).
What is Cervical Cancer?
Cancer in general starts when cells in the body begin to grow out of control. Cells in nearly any part of the body can become cancer and can spread to other areas of the body. Cervical Cancer starts in the cells lining the cervix which is the lower part of the uterus or womb. This is sometimes referred to as the uterine cervix. The fetus grows in the body of the uterus (the upper part). The cervix connects the body of the uterus to the vagina or birth canal. The cervix has two different parts and is covered with two different types of cells.
The part of the cervix closest to the body of the uterus is called the endocervix and is covered with glandular cells. The part next to the vagina is the exocervix (or ectocervix) and is covered in squamous cells. These two cell types meet at a place called the transformation zone. The exact location of the transformation zone changes as you get older and if you give birth.
Can Cervical Cancer be prevented?
The short answer is yes. Cervical Cancer has what is known as a “pre-cancerous stage”, best thing to do is to avoid or prevent this stage by:
- Avoiding exposure to HPV
- Getting an HPV vaccine
- Not smoking
The other way is to have testing (screening) to find pre-cancers before they can turn into cancer. The Pap test (or Pap smear) and the human papilloma virus (HPV) test are used for this. If a pre-cancer is found it can be treated, stopping Cervical Cancer in the early stages. Most invasive cervical cancers are found in women who have not had regular Pap tests.
The Pap test is a procedure used to collect cells from the cervix so that they can be looked at under a microscope to find cancer and pre-cancer. These cells can also be used for HPV testing. A Pap test can be done during a pelvic exam, but not all pelvic exams include a Pap test. An HPV test can be done on the same sample of cells collected from the Pap test.
Who should get a HPV vaccine?
HPV vaccines prevent infection by certain types of the virus, but they work best if they are given before an infection occurs. This is why it is recommended for girls and boys ages 11 to 12. Since the vaccines produce the strongest immune response at this age, and because most children at this age have not yet become sexually active. This is also an age when children still will be seeing their doctor regularly and getting other vaccinations.
The HPV vaccines prevent the 2 types of HPV that cause 70% of all cervical cancers and pre-cancers, as well as many cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus, and throat. They also help prevent infection by the 2 types of HPV that cause most genital warts. The vaccines are given as a series of shots.
Credit: American Cancer Society
Who should get a Pap smear and how often?
- All women should begin Cervical Cancer testing (screening) at age 21.
- Women aged 21 to 29, should have a Pap test every 3 years.
- Women aged 30 to 65 should get tested every 3 years.
- Women over 65 years of age who have had regular screening in the previous 10 years should stop Cervical Cancer screening as long as they haven’t had any serious pre-cancers.
- Women who have had a total hysterectomy (removal of the uterus and cervix) should stop screening (such as Pap tests and HPV tests).
- Women who have had a hysterectomy without removal of the cervix (called a supra-cervical hysterectomy) should continue cervical cancer screening according to the guidelines above.
- Women who are at high risk of Cervical Cancer because of a suppressed immune system (for example from HIV infection, organ transplant, or long-term steroid use) or because they were exposed to DES in utero may need to be screened more often. They should follow the recommendations of their health care team.
- Women who are at high risk of cervical cancer because of PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome)
- Women who have been vaccinated against HPV should still follow these guidelines.
The risks of Cervical Cancer
Unless you have very early cervical cancer, your treatment will mean that you will lose the ability to have children. if your plan was to start a family at a later age this could be blow to you emotionally. This is because with serious cases of Cervical cancer the onlyreatment that may be feasible is a hysterectomy.
What is a hysterectomy?
A hysterectomy is the removal of part or the entire uterus. Depending on how far along your case of Cervical Cancer be this would determine if a Partial hysterectomy or Total hysterectomy will be performed. In any case this would render the patient infertile, meaning she would lose the ability to bear children. If the ovaries are removed as in the case of a total hysterectomy it would result in Early menopause.
As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is always better than a pound of cure”. Cervical Cancer can be prevented through regular screening and vaccination. We should vaccinate our teenagers, both boys and girls. Plus, we must avoid behavior that would expose us to pre-cancerous risk factors.
January 2017 www.sweettntmagazine.com
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