Author: Cary Love, Navy Spouse
Photo Credit: Flickr user MilitaryHealth
If taking charge of your health is one of your New Year’s resolutions, you might want to add getting a Pap test to your to-do list. January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, and considering that more than 70 percent of women and men will come in contact with the human papillomavirus (HPV)—the sexually transmitted infection that leads to cervical cancer—it’s a topic worth discussing. So we have the Top 6 Questions Asked – Cervical Cancer Awareness.
1. What is cervical cancer?
The cervix is the lower part of the uterus (the womb) that connects the vagina (the birth canal) to the upper part of the uterus. The uterus is where a baby grows when a woman becomes pregnant. Cervical cancer forms due to an abnormal growth of cervical cells that form a tumor.
About 12,000 women in the United States get cervical cancer annually. Cervical cancer is most common in women 30 years or older; however, all women are at risk. In the past, cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States, but due to prevention efforts, including the Pap test, both the incidence and mortality rates of cervical cancer have significantly declined.
Still, many women die of cervical cancer in the developing world. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that out of more than 270,000 deaths from cervical cancer annually, more than 85 percent are in developing countries where there is limited access to prevention, such as screening.
2. What causes cervical cancer?
The majority of cases of cervical cancer are due to HPV, which is the most common sexually transmitted infection. According to WHO, “Most sexually active women and men will be infected at some point in their lives.” Often times HPV infections go away naturally, but if left untreated, HPV may lead to cervical cancer over time.
Risk factors for HPV include having multiple sexual partners, having unsafe sex, having HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) or other immune system deficiencies, and using tobacco.
3. What are the signs and symptoms?
Cervical cancer, like HPV infections, may not cause any signs or symptoms initially. Once the cervical cancer has advanced, symptoms may include unusual bleeding or discharge from the vagina, back, leg or pelvic pain, fatigue, weight loss, vaginal discomfort and swelling of the legs. Irregular bleeding is the most common sign of cervical cancer and may occur during sexual intercourse or between menstrual periods.
4. Can it be prevented?
You can lower your risk of getting cervical cancer in a number of ways.
- If you’re 26-years-old or younger, get an HPV vaccine. You can get your children vaccinated as well. The vaccine is recommended for 11 and 12 year old boys and girls, as well as teen girls and women ages 13 through 26 and teen men ages 13 through 21.
- Get screened. There are two tests that can detect cervical cancer—the Pap test, which looks for precancerous cells and can treat them before they turn into cancer, and the HPV test. Regularly getting screened is vital because many women who have cervical cancer or HPV have no symptoms.
- If you’re sexually active, always use a condom and use it properly. While condoms can’t always protect against HPV, since they do not cover the entire genital area of either sex, they still have the potential to lower your risk of acquiring the infection. You can also educate your children about safe sex.
- Stop using tobacco products or don’t start.
5. Can it be treated?
While there is no cure for HPV, there is treatment available for cervical cancer. Treatment options depend on the stage of the cancer—its size and how far it has spread. Surgery, such as a hysterectomy (removal of the whole uterus, including the cervix), radiation therapy, chemotherapy and targeted therapy are common types of treatments. Often times, these treatments are combined.
6. How can you cope?
You’re not alone. If you learn that you have cervical cancer or have a friend or family member with cervical cancer, there are options to help you cope. Hotlines, such as the Cancer Support Helpline (1-888-793-9355) or Cancer Care’s hotline (800-813-HOPE), provide emotional support and information on local resources, like support groups.
The American Cancer Society has several programs and services for people with cancer and their loved ones. Examples include their patient lodging programs, which helps patients find places to stay when traveling for medical treatments, their Look Good Feel Better sessions that help women cope with skin changes and hair loss, and their Road To Recovery program, which provides free rides to patients who need transportation for cancer treatments.
The good news is that cervical cancer is highly preventable and treatable. You have the information and resources, so now’s the time to start taking control of your health. Get screened and encourage your loved ones to do the same. Make regular check-ups a priority and put your health first. You’re worth it!
For more content like this, check out Healthy State of Mind.