It has been estimated that around 15,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with cervical cancer this year. Of them, around 4,290 will die. Terrible as that death rate is, it represents a drop of around 50% since the 1970s. This is largely due to increased screening, resulting in early detection and treatment. Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic has seen a dramatic drop in women having screenings. With January designated as Cervical Health Awareness Month by the US Congress, it’s time to refocus on cervical cancer prevention.
What Is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer is a cancer that attacks the cervix, which is the lower part of a woman’s womb or uterus. It is caused by strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is transmitted through sexual contact. This is a form of cancer that develops slowly over time as abnormal cells grow on the cervix. It can take many years to manifest.
The greatest risk factor for cervical cancer is repeated HPV infection. Other risk factors include smoking, genetics, poor nutrition that is low in fruits and vegetables, and having a large number of sexual partners.
Good nutritional habits and sexual health are key to cervical cancer prevention.
Cervical Cancer Awareness Month
Every year, January is designated as Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. The overriding objective of the initiative is to encourage women to be more attentive to their health in general and to screen for cervical cancer specifically. Early detection and vaccination are effective for the treatment of cervical cancer, so awareness and regular testing are vital for prevention.
The color teal has been chosen to represent Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. There are three main ways to observe Cervical Cancer Awareness Month:
- Collect data, facts, and statistics about cervical cancer and distribute them in your community to get the word out.
- Liaise with your local healthcare provider to organize a screening camp at your place of work, school, or club.
- Get involved in online events taking place throughout the month.
Cervical Cancer Awareness Month in January is followed in February by National Cancer Prevention Month.
Cervical Cancer Screening
For hundreds of years, cervical cancer was one of the leading causes of death in women around the world. From the 1950s onward, however serious efforts have been made in the screening and treatment of cervical cancer. In the 1940s, Dr. Georgios Nikolaou Papanikolaou developed what became known as the Pap smear.
In the 1970s, vaccinations to prevent HPV were developed. However, the vaccination, will not treat existing HPV infections. As a result, the vaccine is most effective when taken before a person is infected with HPV. That is why early screening is so important.
There are two types of cervical screening:
- the Pap test
- the HPV test
The Pap test involves checking for precancerous cells on the cervix that may become cancerous over time. The HPV test checks for the HPV virus, which leads to the cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer.
These tests are conducted in a doctor’s office or clinic. From there, the collected cells are then sent to a laboratory for testing.
If you are a woman between the ages of 21 and 29, you should have cervical screening tests done every three years. Women between the ages of 30 and 65 should consult with their doctor about what testing frequency is right for them. However, if you return a negative test, you will probably be advised to wait 3 or 5years before your next test.
Women over the age of 65 may be advised by their doctor that further testing is unnecessary if they have had normal screening results for a number of years.
Preparing for Your Screen
In the 48 hours leading up to your cervical screening test, you should follow these guidelines:
- Do not have sex
- Do not douche
- Avoid using a tampon
- Do not use birth control, foam, jelly, or cream
- Refrain from applying medicine or cream to your vagina
Cervical Cancer Treatment
The treatment of cervical cancer depends on the stage of cancer that you have. So, treatment options may also depend on the exact location of the cancer, your age, the type of cervical cancer you have (squamous cell or adenocarcinoma), and whether or not you have had children.
Some common treatments for women who want to retain their fertility are a cone biopsy, the removal of pelvic lymph nodes, or pelvic lymph node dissection. For women who do not want to retain their fertility, treatments include simple or radical hysterectomy, external beam radiation therapy (EBRT), or removal of lymph nodes in the pelvis or para-aortic area. Radiation treatment is also an option for women who aren’t healthy enough for surgery.
Overall, the treatment available for cervical cancer is highly dependent on the stage of cancer, your health, whether or not you want to have children in the future, and various other factors. Your doctor will be your best source for finding out your options in your particular case.
Cervical cancer is a treatable condition. The key to successfully beating this disease is to stay vigilant, not become apathetic or too busy to remember, and stick to a regular screening program. You also need to get your HPV vaccination to stop the virus that causes cervical cancer in its tracks.
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