January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, a time set aside to increase awareness of the disease and the importance of screening as a prevention strategy. Arizona Oncology reminds all women to speak with their healthcare providers about being screened for cervical cancer.
In the United States, approximately 12,900 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and more than 4,100 women will die from the disease this year, according to the American Cancer Society. Today, however, invasive cervical cancer is highly preventable. According to the National Cancer Institute, the key to preventing death from cervical cancer is regular screening to detect abnormalities in the cells of the cervix early, before they become cancerous.
In Arizona, women of American Indian and Hispanic descent show year after year that they are less likely to get the testing needed to detect cervical cancer, resulting in a much higher number of women in those demographics testing positive for cervical cancer, according to Health Arizona. According to the Center for Disease Control, in Arizona’s total population approximately 6.1 women out of 100,000 are diagnosed with cervical cancer annually. For Arizona’s Hispanic population, this number increases to 8.3 women out of 1,000.
A pap test is a simple test performed in a physician’s office or clinic used to look at cervical cells. The physician or nurse scrapes a sample of cells from the cervix, and then smears the cells on a glass slide which is sent to a laboratory for viewing under a microscope for abnormalities. Finding and treating abnormal cells can prevent most cervical cancers, and screening can help find cancer early, when treatment is more likely to be effective.
Recommended screening for cervical cancer includes having a pap test at age 21 or three years after first sexual intercourse, whichever comes first. Most women should have a pap test at least once every three years. Women aged 65 to 70 who have had at least three normal pap tests and no abnormal one in the past 10 years may decide after speaking with their physicians to stop cervical cancer screening.
Human papillomaviruses (HPVs) are the main risk factor for cervical cancer. HPV is a group of viruses that can infect the cervix. They are very common, and can be passed from person to person through sexual contact. Most adults have been infected with HPV at some time in their lives. Some types of HPV can cause damage to cells in the cervix, leading to genital warts, cancer and other problems.
HPV is easily preventable, however, through a vaccine. It’s recommended for both males and females who are nine to 26 years old. Research has shown the vaccine can prevent cervical cancer and a pre-cancerous condition called cervical dysplasia. However, the vaccine is only effective for certain subtypes of HPV and does not defend against other sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy.
“We cannot stress enough how crucial it is for children and young adults to receive the vaccine,” said Dr. Shana Wingo, gynecologic oncologist with Arizona Oncology. “By getting this vaccine, women are significantly decreasing their chances of cervical cancer in the future.”
In addition to HPV, risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- Weakened immune system – women with HIV infection who take drugs that suppress the immune system have a higher-than-average risk of developing cervical cancer.
- Age – Cancer of the cervix occurs most often in women over the age of 40.
- Sexual history – women who have had many sexual partners have a higher-than-average risk of developing cervical cancer. Also, a woman who has had intercourse with a man who has had many sexual partners may be at higher risk of developing the disease. In both cases, the risk of developing cervical cancer increases because these women have a higher-than-average risk of HPV infection.
- Smoking cigarettes – women with an HPV infection who smoke cigarettes have a higher risk of cervical cancer than women with HPV infection who do not smoke.
- Prolonged use of birth control pills – using birth control pills for five years or more may increase the risk of cervical cancer among women with HPV infection.
Common signs of cervical cancer include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Increased vaginal discharge
- Pelvic pain
- Pain during intercourse
Arizona Oncology plays a major role in helping women and their families throughout the state win the battle against cervical cancer by providing easy access to a full range of advanced cancer care services in a setting that allows patients to remain close to their homes and their support networks of family and friends. Through its affiliation with The US Oncology Network, one of the nation’s largest healthcare services networks dedicated exclusively to cancer treatment and research, Arizona Oncology can quickly bring the latest advances in therapies, research and technology to where patients live. As a result, patients access the best possible treatment with the least amount of disruption to their daily lives.