By Dana Putman, FNP-C, family nurse practitioner
Did you know January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month? According to the American Cancer Society, cervical cancer is one of the most common causes of cancer death among women; however, cervical cancer is highly preventable and treatable. With the increased use of Pap test screening, the death rate has dropped but has remained consistent for the past 10 years.
What is cervical cancer and how do you get it?
Cervical cancer occurs in the cells of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease (STD), play a role in causing most cervical cancer. In a small percentage of women, HPV survives for years and contributes to the process that causes cervical cells to become cancerous.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
In its early stages, cervical cancer often has no signs or symptoms. In more advanced stages, cervical cancer symptoms may include:
- Pain during intercourse or pelvic pain
- Vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between periods or after menopause
- Watery, bloody vaginal discharge that may be heavy and have a foul odor
Can I prevent cervical cancer?
As with many diseases, screening, and early detection and diagnosis are key to optimal health outcomes. You can reduce your risk of cervical cancer by:
- Having screening tests, including a Pap test as part of your annual well-woman exam
- Practicing safe sex by using condoms to decrease the risk of STDs
- Receiving the HPV vaccine to protect yourself against HPV infection
Screening can prevent most cervical cancers by finding abnormal cervical cell changes (pre-cancers) so that they can be treated before they have a chance to turn into a cervical cancer. Most cervical cancers are found in women who have never had a Pap test or who have not had one recently.
Who is most at risk for cervical cancer?
As with many diseases, risk factors for cervical cancer include things within your control as well as factors you cannot control. To decrease your risk of cervical cancer, focus on making changes to those factors you can possibly change.
- HPV infection: HPV is the most important risk factor for cervical cancer and is a group of more than 150 related viruses that are spread through skin-to-skin contact. Decrease your risk of certain types of HPV infection by getting the HPV vaccine. As well, understand the signs and symptoms of HPV infections and seek medical treatment immediately.
- Sexual history and activity: HPV is a sexually-transmitted disease so those who begin having sex at a young age, have many sexual partners, and/or have a sexual partner who has HPV or who has many sexual partners increase their risk of getting HPV, the leading cause of cervical cancer.
- Smoking: Women who smoke are about twice as likely to get cervical cancer.
- Weakened immune system: The immune system is critical to killing cancer cells and/or slowing their growth. Women with HIV, autoimmune diseases, and/or who have had an organ transplant are at higher risk of cervical cancer.
- Chlamydia infection: Chlamydia is a bacteria that is sexually transmitted and can infect the reproductive system. Some studies have shown a higher risk of cervical cancer in women with chlamydia as it may help HPV grow.
- Long term use of birth control pills: Research suggests that birth control pills or oral contraceptives (OC) increase the risk of cervical cancer the longer the woman takes OCs; however, the risk decreases again after the OCs are stopped and returns to normal many years after stopping. IUDs may be a viable birth control option.
- Multiple full-term pregnancies: Studies have suggested that women who have had three or more full-term pregnancies have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer due to hormonal changes during pregnancy possibly making these women more susceptible to HPV infection and/or cancer growth.
- Young age at first full-term pregnancy: Women whose first full-term pregnancy was at age 20 or younger are more susceptible to cervical cancer than women age 25 older.
- Diet low in fruits and vegetables
- Diethylstilbestrol (DES): DES is a hormonal drug that was given to some women to avoid miscarriages; DES was used primarily from 1938 to 1971. A woman whose mother took DES is not at a higher risk of cervical cancer.
- Family history of cervical cancer
We’re here to help you understand cervical cancer and control your risk factors. For more information about cervical cancer or the HPV vaccination or to schedule your annual well-woman exam and screening, please contact a DMG primary care provider.