Cervical cancer is preventable through vaccination and screening, and people need to be aware of the importance of regular health checks. This is especially important in states like Kentucky, which ranks in the top 10 in the country for cervical cancer incidence and death rates.
With January as cervical cancer awareness month, Dr. Rachel Miller, gynecologic oncologist at the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center, offers recommendations on how to prevent this deadly cancer.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection causes virtually all cases of cervical carcinomas. Most sexually active women will be exposed to HPV at some point in their lifetime, but only 5 to 15 percent will develop cervical precancerous lesions, and an even smaller percentage will develop cervical cancer, Miller said.
Risk factors for persistent HPV infections include early age of first sexual intercourse, multiple partners, smoking, poor immune function, multiple pregnancies, and a long duration of birth control pill use.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV causes 30,700 cancers in men and women annual in the U.S.
HPV vaccination can prevent most of the cancers (about 28,000) from occurring. The CDC recommends that all boys and girls age 11 or 12 should get the HPV vaccine, which is given in two shots, six to twelve months apart. Adolescents older than age 14, however, must have three shots of the vaccine given over six months.
Also, three doses are still recommended for people ages 9 through 26 who have certain immunocompromising conditions. The CDC also recommends HPV vaccination for young women through age 26 and young men through age 21.
Miller also talked about the importance of the Pap smear, a screening procedure for cervical cancer that tests for the presence of precancerous or cancerous cells on the cervix.
“I can’t recommend this test enough – at Markey, about 95 percent of cervical cancer patients we treat have not gotten their recommended schedule of cervical cancer screenings,” Miller said in a news release.
“Screenings usually begin at age 21 or three years after first sexual intercourse. Talk to your doctor about a timeline for regular screenings,” she said.
Both the HPV vaccine and Pap smear are important because the symptoms of cervical cancer aren’t always obvious, and it may not cause any symptoms at all until it’s reached an advanced stage.
In most cases the first noticeable symptom of cervical cancer is vaginal bleeding, which usually occurs after sexual intercourse, or an unpleasant-smelling vaginal discharge. Bleeding at any other time, other than your expected monthly period, is also considered unusual.
These symptoms can be mistaken for less serious issues, such as a yeast infection or urinary tract infection. As the cancer advances, it can cause urinary blockage, bone pain, swelling of one leg, changes in bladder and bowel habits, loss of appetite, weight loss, and tiredness.
“As you work through your resolutions for the New Year, make taking care of yourself a priority — and that includes scheduling a few regular trips to your doctor,” Miller said.