• Dr. Lauren O'Byrne

Cervical Health Awareness Month

The cervix is a hollow cylinder that connects the lower part of a woman’s uterus to her vagina. Cervical cancer was once a leading cause of death among American women. That has changed since screening tests became widely available. Certain strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cervical cancer. Fortunately, we have a vaccine available to prevent the four most common strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer. This vaccine is given to both boys and girls starting at age 9. Vaccination is most effective before a person becomes sexually active.

The biggest risk factor for cervical cancer is HPV. Other risk factors include human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), chlamydia, smoking, obesity, a family history of cervical cancer, a diet low in fruits and vegetables, taking birth control pills, having three full-term pregnancies and being younger than 17 when you got pregnant for the first time.

It is possible to have some of these risk factors without having cervical cancer. Talk to your doctor about how you can decrease your risk of cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer prevention

One of the easiest ways to prevent cervical cancer is by getting screened regularly with a Pap smear and/or high-risk HPV test. Screening picks up precancerous cells, so they can be treated before they turn into cancer.

A Pap smear is a test doctors use to diagnose cervical cancer. Your doctor collects a sample of cells from the surface of your cervix. These cells are then sent to a lab to be tested for precancerous or cancerous changes. If these changes are found, your doctor may suggest further testing with a procedure called a colposcopy where a biopsy can be performed.

The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends the following screening schedule for women by age:

  1. Ages 21 to 29: Get a Pap smear once every three years.

  2. Ages 30 to 65: Get a Pap smear once every three years, get a high-risk HPV test every five years, or get a Pap smear and a high-risk HPV test every five years.

Cervical cancer symptoms can include:

  1. unusual bleeding, such as in between periods, after sex or after menopause

  2. vaginal discharge that looks or smells different than usual

  3. pain in the pelvis

  4. needing to urinate more often

  5. pain during urination

If you notice any of these symptoms, you should see your doctor for an exam. Many women with cervical cancer don’t realize they have the disease early on, because it usually doesn’t cause symptoms until the late stages. When symptoms do appear, they’re easily mistaken for common conditions like menstrual periods and urinary tract infections.

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