January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, which means the new year is a great opportunity to make sure you have a plan in place to stay up to date on cervical cancer screening. It’s also the perfect time to refresh your knowledge on this common form of cancer, how it can affect your reproductive health and how you can protect yourself.
Understanding Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer begins in the cells in the lining of the cervix, the lower part of the uterus. Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by high-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection. While most cases of HPV are not serious and go away on their own, certain high-risk types can last for years, leading to changes in the cervical cells and causing a precancerous lesion. If a precancerous lesion isn’t detected and removed, it can develop into cervical cancer. That’s why getting screened regularly for cervical cancer is very important.
Fertility and Pregnancy
Because many cases of cervical cancer occur in women of child-bearing age, it’s important to be aware of the possible long-term effects on reproductive health. Because of the location of this type of cancer, some treatments, such as certain types of surgery and radiation, can cause infertility.
It is rare for cervical cancer to be diagnosed during pregnancy. When this does occur, the cancer is usually in early stages and may not need immediate treatment. However, it is possible for cervical cancer to be diagnosed at a more advanced stage during pregnancy. In these rare cases, the care team will take into consideration how far along the pregnancy is and discuss treatment options with the patient. Some types of cancer treatment cannot be administered during certain stages of pregnancy.
A Highly Preventable Disease
Nearly all cases of cervical cancer could be prevented by:
Getting vaccinated for HPV
Receiving routine screenings for cervical cancer
Getting appropriate treatment when precancerous lesions are found
Steps to prevent cervical cancer can begin at a young age. The CDC recommends that all children begin the HPV vaccination series at age 11 or 12, but it can begin as early as age 9. Those who begin the series before age 15 should get two doses, while those who begin after age 15 should get three doses.
Although people can receive the vaccination until age 45, the CDC doesn’t recommend it for those ages 27 to 45, because people in this age group have likely already been exposed to HPV and would not benefit from the vaccine.
Screening for cervical cancer can be done in three ways:
HPV test: This test checks for cells infected with high-risk types of HPV.
Pap test: During this test, the doctor collects cells from the cervix to check for changes that could lead to cervical cancer.
HPV/Pap cotest: In some cases, both tests are used together.
You can obtain a screening during a pelvic exam at your annual well-woman visit with your OBGYN or your primary care provider. In general, the type of test you get depends on your age and results of previous testing:
Women ages 21–29: The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends all women get their first Pap test at age 21, continuing every three years.
Women ages 30–65: Women in this group should get an HPV test every five years, a Pap test every three years or an HPV/Pap cotest every five years.
Women ages 65 and older: Talk with your doctor about whether screening is still needed.
By being aware and staying vigilant about regular screenings for cervical cancer, you can help protect yourself and your reproductive health.
Cervical Cancer Care in Brazosport
If you live in Brazoria, Matagorda or surrounding areas, St. Luke’s Health–Brazosport Cancer Center offers advanced treatments for cervical cancer or any other gynecologic cancer. With the resources of the world-class Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine at our fingertips, we provide a full range of cancer therapies, including access to clinical trials—all near where you live and work.
Learn more about the cancer care at St. Luke’s Health–Brazosport Cancer Center.