Awareness Is Key: Ways to Avoid a Cervical Cancer DiagnosisCancer Care
Cervical cancer was once a leading cause of cancer death for women in the U.S. Screening and prevention, along with vaccines, have significantly reduced the deadly impact of this cancer.
Yet, every year more than 13,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the U.S., and more than 4,200 die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.
Frances Hutchinson, R.N., a nurse navigator with Lee Health Regional Cancer Center, says almost every case of cervical cancer is preventable and, if diagnosed early, highly curable. She explains why women shouldn’t delay getting a Pap test, the screening that looks for precancers or cell changes on the cervix, and shares prevention and screening tips that can save your life.
Q: What is cervical cancer?
A: Cervical cancer starts with abnormal changes that occur in the cells that line the cervix. These cells, called precancers if left untreated, can develop into cancer.
Cervical cancer is almost always caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), but other risk factors include:
- Tobacco use
- High-risk sexual practices
- A weakened immune system
Q: How is cervical cancer diagnosed?
A: Finding cervical cancer typically starts with an abnormal screening result from an HPV or a Pap test.
The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancers. The HPV test looks for the virus (human papillomavirus) that can cause these cell changes.
These are screening tests, not diagnostic tests. If either of their results are abnormal, you’ll usually need more testing or treatment to determine if cancer or a precancer is present.
A concerning trend is that about 15 percent of American women reported their most recent OB/GYN check-up was about three years ago. Nearly nine percent of women said they have never had a Pap test. We want to bring awareness around this incredibly important preventive issue. Screening saves lives. If caught as a precancer, these cells can be treated before becoming cancerous.
Cancers diagnosed at late stages, such as III or IV, typically are associated with poor outcomes and higher treatment costs. Cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treatable cancers because women diagnosed at earlier stages have a higher chance of survival.
Q: What are the recommendations for Pap and/or HPV tests?
The American Cancer Society recommends the following guidelines for individuals with a cervix. These guidelines do not apply to people diagnosed with cervical cancer or cervical precancer.
The most important thing to remember is to get screened regularly, no matter which tests you get.
- Cervical cancer screening with an HPV test alone every five years for everyone with a cervix from age 25 until age 65.
- If HPV testing alone is unavailable, people can get screened with an HPV/Pap co-test (an HPV test and Pap test are done together) every five years or a Pap test every three years.
Q: How can I get screened through Lee Health?
A: Get connected with one of our seven Women’s Health offices.
Q: How much does it cost?
A: The cost is part of the screening and is usually covered by insurance. For an estimate, call 239-424-1333.
Q: How can I lower my risk of developing cervical cancer?
The key is to avoid human papillomavirus infection. You can do this by practicing safe sex (condoms), limiting the number of sexual partners, avoiding high-risk sexual partners, and getting an HPV vaccination (if you’re age appropriate).
Other risk factors include smoking, long-term use of oral contraceptives, multiple full-term pregnancies, and if you’re under 20 during your first, full-term pregnancy.
You should aim to maintain annual wellness visits with your primary care physician and gynecologist, either of whom can perform regular pelvic exams. If you don’t have a primary care provider or gynecologist, you should find one who can recommend the right female cancer screenings and diagnostic tests based on your age, lifestyle, and family history.
Q: Let’s talk about HPV vaccinations. Why are they important when it comes to preventing cervical cancer?
Because most cervical cancers are associated with HPV, immunization with the 9-valent HP vaccine helps prevent new HPV infections. The vaccine works best if given before an individual is exposed to HPV. It is still recommended to be given to individuals up to 26 years of age, even if they are already sexually active.
Q: What are the recommendations for HPV vaccinations?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children between ages 11 and 12 should get two doses of the HPV vaccine (which can be given as early as age 9). Individuals between the ages of 15 and 26 should receive three doses.
The HPV vaccination is not recommended for everyone older than age 26 years.
However, the CDC recommends that some adults aged 27 through 45 years who were not vaccinated might choose to get the HPV vaccine after speaking with their doctor about their risk for new HPV infections and the possible benefits of vaccination for them.
HPV vaccination of adults provides less benefit because more people in this age range were exposed to HPV already.