By Dr. Rachel Robinson, Medical Director OB/GYN
Updated: Jan. 12, 2022
January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, an observance created to raise awareness about the role regular screenings play in cervical health. According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 14,480 new cervical cancer cases were diagnosed in the United States in 2021 with more than 4,000 deaths.
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix — the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Various strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection, play a role in causing most cervical cancer. When exposed to HPV, the body’s immune system typically prevents the virus from doing harm. In a small percentage of people, the virus can survive for years, contributing to the process that causes some cervical cells to become cancerous.
Cervical cancer used to be one of the most common causes of cancer death for persons with a uterus. Fortunately, that trend has been decreasing thanks to regular screening tests that detect abnormalities before cancer develops. The two most common tests to help prevent cervical cancer are the Pap smear and the HPV test. The Pap smear (also called a Pap test) looks for cell changes in the cervix that could potentially become cancerous if not treated. The HPV test looks for the virus that can cause cell changes in the cervix.
Early-stage cervical cancer generally produces no signs or symptoms. Signs and symptoms of more-advanced cervical cancer include:
- Abnormal bleeding
- Heavy discharge
- Increased urinary frequency
- Pain while urinating
- Pelvic pain not related to a menstrual cycle
In addition to the Pap smear and HPV test, there are other ways to prevent cervical cancer. Follow up with your doctor if your cervical screening test results are abnormal. Also, use condoms during sex, as well as limit the number of sexual partners.
The World Health Organization estimates that cervical cancer could be the first cancer to be eliminated if 90% of young persons with a uterus were vaccinated against HPV. The HPV vaccine is recommended for routine vaccine at age 11 or 12 years. For those not adequately vaccinated when younger, they can receive the HPV vaccine through age 26. The HPV vaccine is also approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for individuals aged 27 to 45 years. Those in this age group should talk with a health care provider to see if there is a benefit from getting the vaccine.
When discovered early, cervical cancer is highly treatable and often associated with a long survival rate. Contact your Legacy health provider or OB/GYN physician with any questions about your cervical health. Call 832-580-5000 or visit our website to schedule an appointment.