Marlan Schwartz, M.D., FACOG
Cervical cancer is the second leading cancer in women worldwide, with more than 11,000 new cases diagnosed yearly in the U.S. alone. Yet, it’s one of the most preventable cancers, making education and awareness the two most important factors in helping you lower your risk of developing the deadly disease. While certainly a sensitive topic to discuss, it’s important to understand the disease and your own personal risk, and to get answers to all of your questions. Being informed can end up saving your life.
In honor of January being National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, I’ve outlined some of the most common questions I receive daily about the disease to help broaden people’s understanding of cervical cancer, alleviate initial worries, and encourage women to take the lead and be proactive in managing their own health.
- What is cervical cancer? Cancer in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus, typically develops when abnormal cells gradually transition from pre-cancerous to cancerous. Most cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), which is contracted from having sexual contact with someone who has the virus. Although this pre-cancer to cancer change is typically gradual and develops over several years, sometimes it can happen rather quickly and unexpectedly, which is why early detection and regular screenings with your gynecologist are vital in protecting your health.
- What is a cervical cancer screening, and how often should I have one done? The Pap test (or Pap smear) is a screening test that looks for pre-cancers and abnormal cell changes on the cervix. This type of screening is recommended for all women starting at the age of 21, regardless of sexual activity, and should occur every two years if results are normal or more frequently if it is abnormal. Additionally, it is recommended that women receive the HPV test, which is done as a reflex test for questionable Paps in younger women, and done as a screen with the Pap test for women 30 years of age and older (and repeated every 3 or more years, if negative), to check for the virus that can cause abnormal cell growth. The HPV test helps your physician detect suspicious changes to prevent cancer from developing.
- What are the initial signs and symptoms of cervical cancer?
Typically, women do not experience any noticeable symptoms or changes within their bodies. However, some of the most common symptoms are vaginal bleeding, unusual discharge between periods or after menopause, and/or pain during sexual intercourse. While cervical cancer is not the only possible cause of these symptoms, if you experience these problems, you should contact your gynecologist immediately.
- Are there any preventative measures or steps to take to lower your risk?
- Avoiding exposure to HPV may help reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer. Having sex at an early age, multiple sex partners, and/or unprotected sex are some common sexual behaviors that increase your risk of developing an HPV infection, which can lead to cervical cancer.
- Smoking can increase your risk of developing cervical pre-cancer and cancer. Quitting smoking will help maximize your health and lower your risk of developing the disease.
- Getting the HPV vaccine can provide great protection for women from HPV infections and lower their risk of developing cervical cancer.
- What are the different treatment options for cervical cancer? As with most cancers, treating cervical cancer depends on a variety of factors, including the stage of the cancer, the size and shape of the tumor(s), the age and general health of the patient, and her lifestyle. Advancements in technology continue to dramatically reshape health care, giving patients the option to explore and receive the treatment method that best fits their health needs and personal preferences. One of the newest treatment options for cervical cancer is robotic surgery, a minimally-invasive and safe procedure, used to treat many gynecological health issues, offering shorter hospital stays, less pain, blood loss, and scarring, and a quicker return to normal activities.
Education and early detection are the best defense against cervical cancer. Consult with your physician directly to understand your personal risk and take advantage of available community resources. I encourage you to follow the recommended screening and vaccination guidelines, and to take action if you notice changes within your body, to considerably decrease your chances of developing this harmful disease.
Marlan Schwartz, M.D., FACOG, is a robotic
surgeon and chief of OB/GYN at Somerset Medical Center.