January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. Here’s what you need to know.
Cervical cancer is, like all diseases, something you should watch for year-round. But a new year and a new season mean a fresh start – and a renewal of resolutions we’ve made and not kept in past years. Everyone at Walnut Hill will tell you that one of the best promises you can make is one to yourself: a promise to maintain and pay attention to your gynecological health.
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. Chances are you know a bit about the cause of cervical cancer, HPV (human papillomavirus) – but here are the essentials.
Symptoms and Risk Factors
- HPV typically infects the genitals, but can also infect other mucous membranes such as those in the throat, anus, urethra and related areas. HPV has many strains, some of which cause genital warts. Although the warts aren’t pretty, the wart-causing strains of HPV don’t cause cancer. Also, exposure to HPV does not automatically mean cancer or warts will occur. Usually, the body will fight off the infection on its own. Even so, you should strongly consider getting vaccinated – better safe than sorry, right?
- Other risk factors for cervical cancer include early sexual intercourse (within one year of getting your first period), multiple pregnancies, a compromised immune system, advanced age, and, surprisingly, smoking. The smoking connection is believed to be the result on the effect of tobacco byproducts on the immune system as well as the direct cancer-promoting properties of these byproducts.
- Symptoms of cervical cancer include: abnormal vaginal bleeding or other discharge, pain during intercourse, pelvic pain, gastrointestinal distress, and abnormal odors. Vaginal bleeding is the most common symptom. Women who bleed after menopause should see their doctor for screening right away.
- A PAP smear will reveal most cases of cervical cancer. If your PAP smear shows abnormalities, further tests will be done to confirm the diagnosis. Usually, your doctor will order a colonoscopy – this uses a camera to get a magnified view of your cervix. Your doctor might also opt to do some simple tests or biopsies, and your colon and bladder may also be inspected to make sure the cancer hasn’t spread.
- Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy are front-line treatments for cervical cancer.
- The overall prognosis for cervical cancer patients is good, with 71% surviving for at least five years after diagnosis. As with other types of cancer, the outlook is best for those who are diagnosed and treated early. For those who are treated while the cancer is still localized, five-year survival rates jump to 92 percent.
- Due to the connection between HPV and cancer, it is a good idea to get the HPV vaccine. It’s best to get the vaccine at an early age, as most insurance plans only cover it up to a certain age (usually, your early 20s) – and you want to have full protection from HPV when any kind of sexual activity occurs.
- Have regular PAP smears as recommended by your doctor – early diagnoses of cervical cancer correspond to more successful treatment. Normally, we recommend having a PAP smear every 3 years for women over 21 years old, or as soon as you become sexually active; and if you’re on birth control, your insurance plan will likely require you to have an annual Well Woman exam.
- Other preventative measures are much the same as for avoiding any sexually transmitted disease: Use condoms, avoid partners who are known to be promiscuous, delay sexual activity for a few years, and use common sense. (Note that condoms don’t prevent skin-to-skin contact around the genitals, so they are not guaranteed to prevent the spread of HPV.)
- Also, keep in mind that HPV can infect the throat and anal region, so use the same precautions for non-vaginal sexual activity.
HPV and cervical cancer are topics that tend to be thrown around without a real understanding – so educate yourself, your friends, and your family. Visit the American Cancer Society for more information.