Educating yourself is the first step to to health awareness. Cervical Cancer Awareness Month is upon us and we need to make sure that we are doing all we can to stay in tune with our cervical health. Let’s highlight six things you need to know about cervical cancer.
1. Your Cervix is A Gatekeeper.
The cervix is the lower portion of the uterus that connects the body of the uterus to the vagina. The cervical canal has the important task of allowing passage into and out of the uterus. How? The uterus produces a mucus that plays an important role in ovulation, conception, and childbirth.
During ovulation, the cervix produces mucus that will assist sperm in traveling to the uterus for conception. When you are not ovulating, the cervical mucus acts as barrier to sperm and harmful bacteria and viruses. The cervical canal allows for the passage of your menstrual cycle from the uterus into the vagina. During childbirth the cervix creates a mucus plug in the cervical canal that helps keep the baby safely inside until it effaces (softens) and dilates (opens) during labor.
2. Most Cervical Cancers are Caused by HPV.
When the cells of the cervix grow and multiply in an excessive way, cervical cancer can be the end result. What causes this to happen? These changes are often due to a group of viruses that are spread through sexual contact called HPV (human papillomavirus). There are over 100 types of HPV and while some are low risk and do not cause disease, others can cause genital warts and other cancers. HPV 16 and HPV18 are the high-risk types of HPV that account for about 70 percent of all cervical cancers in the world.
3. Lifestyle Choices May Put You at Risk for Cervical Cancer.
Anyone with a cervix can be at risk for cervical cancer. According to the CDC, Hispanic and black women get more HPV associated cancers. There are risk factors that can make cervical cancer more likely. Those risk factors include:
Infection by HPV
Becoming sexually active before the age of 18
Taking birth control pills for longer than 5 years
A diet low in fruits and vegetables
Having 3 or more full-term pregnancies
A weak immune system or autoimmune disease
Having your first full-term pregnancy before 20 years old
Sexually transmitted disease
Having multiple sexual partners or a partner who has multiple sexual partners
4. Cervical Cancer Symptoms May Not Be Unusual.
With cervical cancer, you may not experience alarming symptoms. That is why regular Pap Smears are so helpful in early diagnoses of cervical cancers. The symptoms that are experienced usually don’t show up until the cancer has progressed. Here are some of the symptoms:
Unusual vaginal discharge
Pain with sexual intercourse
Vaginal bleeding that is unusual, like between periods, after sex, or after menopause
Once cervical cancer has progressed or spread to other areas of the body you may experience:
Low back pain
Pelvic and appendix pain
Foul smelling discharge
Weight loss and loss of appetite
5. A Pap Test Can Save Your Life
To date, I’ve never met a woman who jumps for joy about putting her feet in those stirrups. However, getting a Pap Test is one of our best resources for early detection of cervical cancer. Not only can the Pap Test detect cervical cancer, it can detect abnormal changes in the cervix that may indicate cancer in the future.
The Pap Test is done during a pelvic exam. Doctors recommend getting a Pap Test every 3 years for women who are 21 to 65 years old. However, many women get their Pap Test done annually, especially if there have been abnormal findings on previous tests. If you are 30 to 65 years old, doctors recommend getting a high-risk HPV screening at the time of your Pap Test or as a stand-alone test.
If your HPV test is positive, your doctor may order a colposcopy, a biopsy of the cervical tissue, to take a closer look at what type of HPV is present. The HPV vaccine is available to children, male and female, aged 11 and 12. If the vaccine is not received as a child, women can receive it up to age 26 and men up to age 21.
6. Cervical Cancer is Curable.
The American Cancer Society reports that it is estimated that there will be over 14,000 new cases of cervical cancer in 2021. However, the death rate has decreased due to the Pap Test and HPV testing. When cervical cancer is caught in the early stages, it is curable.
Doctors may use surgery and radiation in the early stages for treatment and a combination of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery in the later stages. If pre-cancerous cells are found, your doctor may use ablation (laser or cold therapy) or may surgically remove them.
Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers that affect women. Listening to your body and taking the time to complete your cervical cancer screening could be life saving. If you do not have a primary care provider or the resources for screening, check with your local health department or a federal qualified health center for programs that offer these services.