Regular screenings for cervical cancer can save lives

By Elizabeth Lucal, MD  |  1/24/2019

Visiting the gynecologist is usually not a woman's favorite appointment. Yet, this is when you are regularly screened for cervical cancer, which only women can develop.

January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, a good time to familiarize yourself with risk factors and methods of prevention that can help you or someone you love from developing this serious disease.

According to the World Health Organization, cervical cancer is the third most common gynecological cancer in the US and the third cause of death from a gynecological cancer.  However, in countries without screening programs, cervical cancer is the Second most  common cause of cancer-related deaths in women.

Risk factors

The development of cervical cancer begins when the human papillomavirus, also known as HPV, is present. The virus is in 99.7 percent of all cervical cancers. However, HPV is not the only risk factor for developing cervical cancer.

Various factors can increase a woman's risk of developing cervical cancer. These include:

  • Early onset sexual activity (younger than 18 years of age).
  • Multiple sexual partners.
  • High risk sexual partners (partners with a known HPV infection).
  • History of sexually transmitted infections.
  • History of vulvar or vaginal cancer.
  • Immunosuppression.
  • Oral contraceptive use.
  • Cigarette smoking.
  • Women living in poverty-level conditions.
  • Genetics.

Common symptoms

Detection of cervical cancer can be difficult. Women can present a variety of symptoms, such as increased discharge, foul-smelling discharge, irregular vaginal bleeding and post-coital bleeding. In some cases, complaints can be as vague as abdominal bloating and pelvic pressure.

Despite any contributing factors, regular screening and access to HPV vaccination programs has significantly decreased the incidence of and death from cervical cancer.

Screenings and the HPV vaccine

Women can access screening and vaccination programs through their gynecologist's office, as well as their primary care doctor. Gynecologists can conduct a Pap smear as well as an HPV screening, based on an individual woman's risk factors and professional guidelines.

Average-risk women should begin receiving Pap smears at age 21. This can be done at the women's health visit.  The Pap smear can detect pre-cancerous lesions and overt cancer in the cervix.

By age 30, Pap smears are done in conjunction with screenings for high-risk HPV strains. Women who are immunosuppressed or have a history of abnormal Pap smears may have different screening protocols.

Regardless of health history, it is important to discuss what screening protocol is right for you with your doctor. Families should ask which HPV vaccine series is best for them and when vaccinations should begin.

Vaccinations can begin as young as age 9. Today, such vaccinations are available for boys, adult men and women.

Long-term prevention

Women can take proactive steps to ensure this cancer does not develop. This includes:

  • Staying up to date with gynecologic exams.
  • For women not yet sexually active, ensuring they begin use of the HPV vaccine from a young age.
  • Discussing medical history with a provider to prevent this disease from impacting health.

 

Dr. Elizabeth Lucal is a Health Quest Medical Practice obstetrician and gynecologist with offices in Poughkeepsie and Fishkill. Appointments can be made by calling HQMP Connect at 1-888-525-HQMP (TTY: 800-421-1220).