Did you know you could lower your risk of cervical cancer with regular screenings?
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and it’s important to know the ways to prevent and the best methods to treat cervical cancer. With appropriate care, there are several ways you can reduce your risk of developing the disease.
Cervical cancer starts with abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix. The most common cause of these changes is a virus known as the Human Papillomavirus, or HPV. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. HPV infection is the leading risk factor for developing cervical cancer. In addition to regular screenings, the HPV vaccine is a preventative measure to safeguard against the strains of HPV that typically cause cervical cancers.
HPV vaccination can be started at 9 years old and is recommended through 12 years old. Those starting the vaccine at this time will receive two doses 6 to 12 months apart. Those who receive the vaccine at ages 15–26 will need three doses of the HPV vaccine. Adults aged 26–45 who are not already vaccinated may also receive the vaccine in coordination with their doctor. It is important to note that in this age range, you may have already been exposed to HPV.
This leads back to regular screenings. The two screening tests you need are the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) test and the Pap test, or Pap smear. The HPV test looks for cell changes on the cervix that may be caused by the virus. The Pap test looks for precancers (cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if not treated appropriately).
Although cervical cancers start from cells with abnormal changes, only some patients with these changes of the cervix will develop cancer. It is important to note that not all abnormal changes will lead to cancer, but it is important to catch these changes early so that they can be monitored and treated as directed by your doctor. For most people, these abnormal cells will go away without any treatment. But, in some people, these abnormal cells can turn into true (invasive) cancers. If you develop symptoms or have test results that indicate the possibility of cervical cancer, your doctor will do follow-up procedures to accurately diagnose the stage and help with treatment.
Procedures used to diagnose cervical cancer are colposcopy and biopsy. If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, you will be referred to a gynecologic oncologist (a doctor who specializes in staging and treating cervical cancer). It is important to know the stage of the cancer in order to plan the best treatment.
The following procedures may be used to determine the cervical cancer stage:
- PET-CT scan
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- Chest x-ray
- Complete blood count (CBC)
- Blood chemistry study
The goal is to prevent and detect cervical cancer as early as possible. Prevention lies in screenings and in HPV vaccination. Early detection of cervical cancer is linked to positive outcomes leading to a longer and healthier quality of life.
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