Cervical cancer develops in the cells lining the cervix (the lower end of the uterus). Almost 13,000 American women will be diagnosed with the disease this year and over 4,000 women will die from it. However, cervical cancer is largely preventable. Take some time in January—Cervical Health Awareness Month—to learn how to protect yourself and your loved ones.
There are several risk factors that increase a woman’s chance of getting cervical cancer. The first is human papilloma virus (HPV) infection. HPV can spread through skin-to-skin contact and most commonly does so during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. HPV infection is extremely common, but most people’s bodies clear the infection naturally and it does not progress into cancer. However, for some people, specific types of chronic infection can eventually cause cancer.
HPV vaccination is one way to help prevent cervical cancer. The vaccine is appropriate for children and young adults between the ages of 11 and 26. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that girls and boys receive the first of two doses of the vaccine at 11-12 years old. The second dose should be given 6 to 12 months later. Those who begin the vaccine later—from ages 15 through 26—require 3 doses in order to be protected.
Additional risk factors for cervical cancer include smoking tobacco, immunosuppression (such as HIV infection), chlamydia infection, being overweight and consuming a diet low in fruits and vegetables, long-term use of birth control pills, having multiple full-term pregnancies, particularly if the first pregnancy occurred before the mother was 17 years old, low socioeconomic status, and having a family history of cervical cancer. Signs and symptoms of cervical cancer can include abnormal vaginal bleeding, unusual discharge from the vagina, and pain during sex.
Cancer screening is one of the most effective tools in the fight against cervical cancer as cervical cancers start with pre-cancerous changes. These tests can locate cervical changes before cancer develops and if cancer is found early enough it can be treated effectively. In the past, cervical cancer was one of the most common causes of women’s cancer deaths in the United States. The widespread use of screening tests has helped decrease the death rate by more than half.
Check out the resources below to learn more about cervical cancer and share this information with your family and friends!
American Cancer Society, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Cervical Cancer Coalition.