Women can reduce their risk of developing cervical cancer by not smoking or having multiple sex partners. Women also need to have regular physical checkups, including pelvic examinations and Pap tests, to help find an abnormality in the cervix before it turns into an actual cancer or detect cervical cancer early when it can be more easily treated.
This January, during Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, the Medical Society of the State of New York reminds women that by taking these and other positive actions, they may reduce their risk of developing cervical cancer. As a bonus they may reduce their risk of getting or suffering from other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) as well.
Cervical cancer develops when cells lining the cervix—the part of the uterus or womb that connects with the vagina—become abnormal and begin to grow out of control. These cells can cause a mass or tumor. Malignant or cancerous tumors can spread to other parts of the body and be life threatening. Cervical cancer was once a common cause of cancer death in women in the United States, but widespread use of the Pap test has greatly reduced the number of women who die of the disease. According to the Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation, when cervical cancer is detected early, it is nearly 100 percent curable.
Risky Behaviors for Cervical Cancer and STDs:
STDs are rampant in the United States. The Women’s Cancer Network estimates that at least one in five people currently has an STD. Since many women with STDs do not experience any symptoms, the STDs are often not diagnosed unless serious complications develop. This is particularly true of human papillomavirus. Although most HPV infections go away without treatment and do not lead to cervical cancer, HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer.
Women should know that certain behaviors may put them at increased risk of contracting HPV and of developing cervical cancer. These behaviors include smoking, sexual intercourse at an early age, having multiple sexual partners, binge drinking leading to multiple sexual partners, and having a partner who has multiple sexual partners. Changes in these behaviors will also reduce the chance of developing other STDs in addition to cervical cancers; therefore, even condoms and other prophylactics cannot fully protect against the virus, according to the Women’s Cancer Network.
Regular Screening Can Be a Life Saver:
There are a number of screening methods available to help detect cervical cancer and associated HPV, but the traditional Pap test or smear is still the most recommended. To perform this simple, painless screening test, a physician collects cells from the cervix and transfers the cells to a slide for examination under a microscope.
If abnormal cells are found, additional tests may be ordered. In most cases, abnormal Pap tests are not related to cancer, but are due to bacterial or yeast infections or other causes. In addition to taking the cell sample, the physician will also conduct a pelvic examination to check the size and shape of the other reproductive organs.
The National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, the Women’s Cancer Network, and other organizations concerned about women’s health have similar recommendations for the timely screening for cervical cancer. The medical society excerpted the information below from that issued by the NCI last January, after reviewing research advances.
• A woman should have her first cervical cancer screening at age 21 or approximately three years after she begins having sexual intercourse, whichever comes first.
• Experts recommend waiting approximately three years following the initiation of sexual activity because transient HPV infections and cervical cell changes that are not significant are common, and it takes years for a significant abnormality or cancer to develop. Cervical cancer is extremely rare in women under the age of 25.
• Women who are at higher than average risk of cervical cancer due to factors such as HIV infection should seek expert medical advice about when to begin screening, how often to be screened, and when they can discontinue cervical screenings.
• Women should have a Pap test at least once every three years.
For further information about cervical cancer and cervical cancer screening, contact the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service toll-free at 800-422-6237 (800-4CANCER) or visit the Web site www.nci.nih.gov/cancerinfo.
This information is provided by the Medical Society of the State of New York. For more health-related information and referrals to physicians in your community, contact your local county medical society.