There are some health issues that every woman needs to know about, whether she’s a teen or a senior. Cervical health is one of them. January is designated by the U.S. Congress as Cervical Health Awareness Month to highlight the importance of how women can protect themselves from cervical disorders, particularly HPV (human papillomavirus) and cervical cancer.
Raising awareness gives women choices and those choices can lead to improved health and even save lives. In America, more than 14,000 women each year are diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer. The risk of developing cervical cancer is still possible as women age — over 20% of cervical cancers are detected in women over age 65. Fortunately, most cervical disorders are preventable with vaccination and appropriate screening.
Disorders of the Cervix
As the lower part of the uterus (womb), the cervix is the opening to the vagina. The cervix is covered with a thin tissue layer comprised of skin-like squamous cells and glandular cells that produce mucus. Common diseases of the cervix include:
- Cervicitis is an inflammation of the cervix usually caused by an infection.
- Cervical incompetence can happen during pregnancy when the cervix opening widens long before the baby is due.
- Cervical polyps and cysts can form abnormal growths on the cervix.
- HPV is a sexually transmitted disease commonly spread through vaginal, anal or oral sex. HPV can cause genital warts and cancers including cervical.
- Cervical cancer occurs when abnormal cervical cells grow out of control over time. The cancer cells invade deeper in the cervical tissue and can eventually spread to other organs.
Prevention of Cervical Diseases
To lower your risk of cervix health problems, you can make intentional choices to strengthen your overall health and immune system by eating nutritionally, staying active and avoiding smoking. Following your healthcare providers guidance on Pap test screenings and HVP vaccination are two of the most important steps to detect cervical abnormalities, infections and cancer early.
Because women with early-stage cervical cancer or pre-cancer usually experience no symptoms, it can be lifesaving to know the common signs and symptoms of cervical cancer. The American Cancer Society has compiled a beneficial list of common cervical cancer symptoms.
HPV and Preventative Vaccination
There are more than 100 types of Human papillomavirus (HPV) and about 30 strains can affect the cervix and genital area. HPV infection causes most cases of cervical cancer, and because HPV typically shows no symptoms, most people do not realize they are infected. HPV can also cause other cancers such as cancer of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus, and tongue and back of the throat (oropharyngeal).
Since it was introduced in the United States in 2006, the one-time HPV vaccine has proven safe and effective in preventing cancers linked to HPV. At Think Whole Person Healthcare, we follow the United States Preventative Services Task Force and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines on HPV vaccination. The vaccination recommendation is for:
- All preteen boys and girls at age 11 or 12.
- Everyone through age 26, if not previously vaccinated.
- Some adults ages 27 – 45 who are not vaccinated, may choose vaccination if their healthcare provider determines a higher risk for new HPV infection.
Most HPV infections clear up on their own by the time a person is age 30, but if a person past this age has new sexual partners or other factors that raise their cervical cancer risk, they need to stay consistent with regular HPV screening. The CDC notes that “every year, about 19,400 women and 12,100 men experience cancers caused by HPV.”
By the time women reach age of 70, roughly 70% of them will have been exposed to HPV. Finding HPV on a Pap test (Papanicolaou test, also known as a Pap smear) can help determine how often you should be tested for HPV. If you test positive, you may need more frequent testing in the future to help ensure that you do not develop cervical cancer. The general guideline is to have HPV testing every three years
Pap Test Screening
During a Pap test, a special tool gently collects cells from the cervix lining for examination under a microscope. The pap test can look for both HPV infection and abnormal cells. In the past, Pap results were labeled either normal or abnormal. Today, higher-powered diagnostic lab equipment allows for categorizing abnormal cells down to their specific DNA, which helps with determining treatment options.
It can take years for HPV to develop into cervical cancer, which why it’s important to stay consistent with Pap tests to find cervical changes before they escalate into widespread cancer. The Pap test can detect precancerous abnormalities and catch cancer at an early stage. Discovering cervical changes early helps improve treatment outcomes and helps prevent long-term problems and cancer mortality.
The USPST guidelines for Pap tests are:
- Women under age 21: No testing. Cervical cancer is quite rare in this age group. If sexually active teens are infected with HPV, almost all these infections go away on their own within a year or two without changes in the cervical cells.
- Women aged 21–29 years: Screen for cervical cancer every three years with cytology alone.
- Women aged 30–65 years: Screen for cervical cancer every three years with cytology alone, every five years with HPV testing alone or every five years with co-testing with a pap and HPV test.
- Women aged 65 and older: No screening for cervical cancer is recommended, if previous regular screening is clear from past 10 years, or for women who have had a full hysterectomy with removal of the cervix, or who otherwise are not at high risk for cervical cancer.
Depending on your specific medical and family history and risk factors for cervical disease, your think healthcare provider will discuss the best screening schedule for your health needs. It is important to still get a yearly physical even if you are not scheduled for a Pap and pelvic exam.
Countless women make the mistake of only seeing their gynecologist during their child-bearing years and skip over regular blood work for such things as cholesterol and blood sugar levels and a check of their blood pressure, heart rate, reflexes, balance and more. Our think healthcare providers understand the priority of paying attention the overall health of the total person.
It’s been said that we spend two-thirds of our medical dollars in the last one third of our lives, and we need to turn that around. Why not invest two-thirds of our medical money in the first one-third of our lives to prevent illnesses and diseases in later life? Staying current with your cervical health is one of the best proactive choices you can make throughout your lifetime.
LEARN MORE ABOUT CERVICAL HEALTH BY SPEAKING WITH YOUR THINK PROVIDER
Think Whole Person Healthcare makes it easy to receive both preventative care and treatment for a wide range of health conditions. From that cut that needs stitches to the persistent coughing and wheezing, our physicians, advanced practice providers and specialists are committed to you and your family’s lifelong health and well-being.
Our walk-in clinic treats anyone, even those who are not a think patient or do not have a primary care provider currently. To learn more about our comprehensive healthcare services, visit our Services page online and choose your own think medical professionals by visiting our Meet Your Doctor page.