Few things are scarier than hearing the word cancer. This rings especially as a woman, since there are so many types that impact only our female organs. One of those is cervical cancer, which is most often diagnosed in women between the ages of 35 and 44. According to the American Cancer Society’s estimates, approximately thirteen thousand new cases will be diagnosed in 2019 and four thousand women will die during the year in the United States.
While it’s hard to find a silver lining in something as scary as cancer, the good news is that cervical cancer is almost always treatable if it’s caught early — and, thanks to regular pap smear screenings, it often is. In addition to staying on top of your healthcare, a great way to help prevent cervical cancer is by educating yourself about it, especially the early signs and risk factors. In honor of Cervical Health Awareness Month this January, we asked top medical experts to share the most important things all women should know about cervical cancer.
HPV is responsible for nearly all cervical cancers
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common sexually transmitted virus, which according to The American Sexual Health Association, an estimated 80 percent of sexually active people will contract at some point in their lives. In most cases, it’s totally harmless and even clears on its own, thanks to our body’s immune system, but high-risk strains that don’t end up clearing can lead to cervical cancer. Other risk factors include smoking cigarettes, having a weakened immune system, and having a family history of cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer develops from normal cells
“Cervical cancers begin in the normal cells lining the uterus,” explains Jessica Horwitz, MSN, FNP-C, Clinical Development Director at Nurx. “These cells of the cervix can gradually develop pre-cancerous changes that, with time, turn into cancer.” Pre-cancerous changes are not sudden, and they can be detected by a Pap test and treated before developing into cancer.
There are no reliable signs of early cervical cancer
HPV cancer usually does not have symptoms until it is quite advanced. “When abnormal bleeding or discharge occurs, it is often already associated with a significant size cervical cancer,” says Steve Vasilev MD, a gynecologic oncologist and medical director of Integrative Gynecologic Oncology at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. “If pain is present, that may mean an even larger cancer, however, it is possible that some early cancers or even pre-cancers (called dysplasia) can bleed or produce these symptoms, too.” For this reason, getting checked regularly is crucial.
Most cervical cancer cases are preventable
Thanks to screening tests for HPV and/or pap testing, as well as with the HPV vaccine, most cervical cancers are not only treatable but also preventable. “The HPV vaccine helps your immune system create an antibody response that protects your body against the infection,” says Horwitz. “This vaccination is administered in two or three shots over a six-month period to both males and females.” The FDA recently expanded their recommendations to now include both males and females ages 9 to 45 (before it was only 9 to 26).
Cervical cancer death rates have dropped dramatically
Cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women, but it has since dropped significantly with increased use of the pap smear test, which screens for changes in the cervix before cancer develops, Horwitz explains. “Pap smears can help find cervical cancer early, when it’s small and easier to cure; however, the amount of cervical cancer diagnoses has not changed much over the past 15 years, and unfortunately we’re seeing less and less women screening for their cervical cancer risk.” The bottom line: Be proactive, schedule regular screenings, and talk to your doctor so they can help prevent any early cervical cell changes from becoming cancerous.