January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is are you — busy mom of X number of children — taking care of yourself and getting your annual screenings?
It’s easy to put it off, right?
For cervical cancer cases, though, whether you’ve had past screenings makes a difference. You see, it’s a slow-developing kind of cancer, and it’s also one that usually comes without any symptoms in its early stages. In the later stages, women experience abnormal bleeding during a period or after sex, abnormal discharge or pain after sex.
The majority of women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer today are women who have not had a screening ever or not in the last five years, says M. Yvette Williams-Brown, a gynecological oncologist with the Seton Infusion Center. That screening is usually a Pap smear and now a test for the human papillomavirus.
“If we can catch it earlier and treat it, the better the chances of survival,” Williams-Brown says.
Starting last year, new guidelines recommended that a woman receive a Pap smear every three years beginning at age 21. Once she turns 30, she has a choice: Get screened for HPV every five years, or continue to have a Pap smear every three years. She no longer has to do both tests. Those screenings can end at age 65 unless she’s had a history of abnormal Pap smears or precancerous conditions and can end before that if she no longer has a cervix.
Whichever test you use — the Pap smear or the HPV test — “Stick to schedule and follow through with it,” Williams-Brown says. “It’s the repeated screening to be on the lookout for this problem that makes it so effective. It’s not just one test.”
Most at risk are women who haven’t had repeated screenings, she says, because they don’t have access to care, they have financial barriers or they don’t have a health care provider.
This doesn’t mean women need a well-check only every three to five years. Well-checks, even when done at a gynecologist’s office, consider more than just the cervix. They cover the whole body.
Screenings allow doctors to find precancerous cells and remove them to avoid a cancer diagnosis. Because of Pap smears, the number of women dying from cervical cancer has fallen by 50 percent, Williams-Brown says.
Those numbers are expected to continue to drop as the kids who have received the HPV vaccine as 11- and 12-year-olds come of age. “It’s going to have an impact,” Williams-Brown says.
In places, such as Australia, that Williams-Brown says has had a “more robust” HPV vaccination program, health officials are seeing less precancerous lesions now and less cancer, she says.
The series of three HPV vaccines is given at age 11 and 12, she says, because there are other vaccines given at that time, and it’s a time when kids’ immune systems are strong and typically before they’ve been exposed to HPV through sexual contact. The vaccine can be given to women up to age 26 and to men up to age 21.