January is National Cervical Cancer and Health Awareness Month. Each year, nearly 13,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer. The silver lining is that the disease is preventable with appropriate screening and vaccination.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of cases of cervical cancer in the United States has decreased significantly, as well as deaths from cervical cancer. This decline is largely due to women getting annual Pap tests, which can detect cervical precancer before it turns into cancer.
Let’s discuss some basic information about cervical cancer and what you can do to be proactive.
What is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cells of a woman’s cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. A sexually-transmitted infection called Human Papillomavirus (HPV) plays a role in causing most cases of cervical cancer.
What are the Early Signs of Cervical Cancer?
Make an appointment with your gynecologist as soon as possible if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- Light bleeding between or after periods
- Menstrual bleeding that is heavier or lasts longer than usual
- Bleeding after intercourse
- Increased vaginal discharge
- Unexplained persistent pelvic and/or back pain
- Bleeding post-menopause
It is important to note that in many women with early-stage cervical cancer, symptoms may not even appear. This is why it is incredibly important to get vaccinations and tests done regularly.
How do I Get Tested for Cervical Cancer?
There are two screenings that can help prevent cervical cancer or detect it in very early stages: the Pap test and HPV test.
A Pap test is generally conducted every three years for women ages 21-65, who have never had an abnormal Pap test result before. If results have previously come back abnormal, your gynecologist may recommend an annual Pap. During a Pap test, your doctor will collect cells from your cervix to check for any precancers.
The HPV test looks for the virus that causes these cervical cell changes to occur. If you’ve had an abnormal Pap test, your doctor will recommend getting an HPV test to determine how the precancerous cells were formed.
After each of these tests, cells are sent to a laboratory for further testing. Your doctor will ask you to come back shortly after these tests are conducted and re-test. If after a second test cells are still abnormal, a biopsy of your cervix will be done to examine further.
Ongoing testing and procedures will be conducted until it is determined that there are no longer cancerous cells in your cervix or if you indeed have cervical cancer.
Cervical Health Awareness Month acts as a good reminder to make an appointment with your gynecologist, even if you are not experiencing any symptoms.
How is Cervical Cancer Treated?
Depending on how severe your cervical cancer is, there are different ways to treat it.
Cervical cancer in the early stages is often treated with surgery to cut away cancer or the entire cervix if necessary. In some cases, the cervix and the uterus will both be removed, commonly known as a hysterectomy.
Radiation and chemotherapy are also used to treat cervical cancer. If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, talk through each of these options in detail with your gynecologist and primary care physician.
As we age, it is important to get tested for different diseases and conditions. Our guide, "The Most Concerning Health Issues For Older Adults," to be aware of early symptoms of these diseases and what treatment may be necessary.