How to Protect Yourself Against Cervical Cancer
Contributed by Dr. Sophy Paulino, OB/GYN
January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, and it is meant to remind women to be diligent about scheduling their gynecologist exam and to get regular pap smears done to detect any onset of cervical cancer.
In the United States approximately 4,000 women die each year from cervical cancer with a predominant number being African American. Cervical cancer occurs most often in women over 30 and the main cause is a long-term HPV infection. HPV is a sexually transmitted virus and is associated with a variety of cancers in addition to cervical including vaginal, vulvar, penile, anal and oropharyngeal cancers. It is the most common sexually transmitted infection with approximately 80% of the sexually active population being exposed to the virus at some point in their lifetime. It takes many years for the infection to progress to cancer and most women can clear the virus on their own without issue. But for those who cannot, it can cause serious health risks. Women who smoke or are immunocompromised are less likely to clear the virus on their own and therefore have an increased risk of HPV progressing to cancer.
The best way to protect yourself again HPV and its potential effects is to focus on prevention. Today, there are many tactics that should be used. First, is to get routine pap smears and/or HPV testing. Pap smear testing generally starts around age 21 and should be done every 3 years until the age of 29. If a patient has underlying health issues, a doctor may recommend this be done more often.
Women who are 30 years old and up can continue their pap smears every 3 years, have a pap smear and HPV test every 5 years, or opt to have an FDA approved high risk HPV test alone every 5 years. Patients who have had their cervix removed or are older than 65 may be able to stop pap smears entirely.
Today there is also a vaccine available to protect again the HPV virus. It has been proven safe and effective and is available to patients up to 45 years of age. If the patient receiving the vaccine is under 15 years old, they will receive two doses about 6 to 12 months apart. If the patient is over 15, it requires three doses.
Lastly, another line of defense against the HPV virus is the use of condoms. It is always recommended that if a patient is going to engage in sexually activity with an individual they do not know well or do not have a history with, they should protect themselves by using a condom. Condoms protect against much more than just pregnancy.
If a pap smear indicates abnormal or precancerous cells, patients may require more frequent testing, a colonoscopy or magnified cervical evaluation, biopsy, endocervical or endometrial sampling, excision or ablation. As with most cancers, the earlier any abnormalities are detected, the better. Treatment can begin promptly which dramatically reduces the likelihood of a worsening condition or spreading.
To prioritize your health and work with a team that is with you every step of the way, call Dr. Sophy Paulino with Starling Physicians at 860-224-6205. To learn more about Dr. Paulino, Click Here.