Most people have heard the term “cervical cancer,” however many do not know that it can almost always be prevented.
Cervical Health Awareness Month, recognized in January each year, is designed to raise awareness around cervical cancer. It is an excellent opportunity to ensure the girls and women you care about are taking steps toward prevention.
Approximately 13,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year. However, there are many things that can be done to prevent the disease including vaccination, screenings, awareness and prevention.
About HPV and the HPV Vaccine
Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), a common infection that spreads through sexual activity. Nearly 79 million Americans have HPV, but most have no symptoms and do not know they have been infected.
Fortunately, an HPV vaccine is available. Ideally, both male and female children should get the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12. However, women can receive the vaccine up to age 26 and men up to age 21. It is given in a series of either two or three shots depending on age.
About Cervical Cancer Screening
Even if a woman has been vaccinated against HPV, she still needs to have regular screenings for cervical cancer. This screening is done by examining cells taken from a woman’s cervix during a Pap test and should begin at age 21.
In the lab, clinicians look for signs of precancerous changes (cell abnormalities on the cervix that could become cancerous if left untreated). If found, these cells are then tested for the HPV virus at the same time. If positive for HPV, follow-up screening should continue every three to five years, until a woman reaches age 65 and has had normal test results for several years.
Be Aware of Risk Factors
In addition to screenings and vaccination, awareness and avoidance of risk factors can help reduce the risk of cervical cancer. Risk factors include:
- Using birth control pills for five or more years
- Being a smoker
- Having had a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
- Having HIV or other immune system disorder
- Having had three or more biological children
- Having had more than one sexual partner
While you may not be able to change all of these conditions, you should change the ones you can, such as stopping smoking, practicing safe sex by using a condom or having fewer sexual partners.
Finally, take this opportunity during Cervical Health Awareness Month to reach out to the women and girls in your life to encourage them to see their doctor for HPV screening and vaccination.