Cervical cancer affects roughly 12,000 women in the United States each year. Here’s everything you need to know to lessen your risk.
You’re probably already familiar with several different types of cancer and their main causes—too much sun exposure leading to skin cancer, smoking causing lung and throat cancer, etc. If you lead a healthy lifestyle, you probably feel that you don’t need to worry about the disease. But there’s one type of cancer that all women are at risk of getting: cervical cancer.
Put simply, cervical cancer causes the cells in the lower part of the uterus to grow out of control. If left unchecked, the cancer can spread into the tissue of surrounding organs. It can also cause bleeding, vaginal discharge, or abdominal pain.
The primary cause for cervical cancer is a common virus called the human papillomavirus (HPV). It is transmitted between sexual partners and at least half of sexually active people will contract HPV at some point in their lives, but most suffer no symptoms or ill effects, and the virus usually goes away on its own. A woman has a higher risk of contracting cervical cancer if she has a prolonged case of HPV, smokes, has HIV or other autoimmune deficiencies, has used birth control pills for five or more years, or has given birth to three or more children.
Luckily, cervical cancer is easy to prevent. There are two tests to detect the cancer: the Pap test and the HPV test. The Pap test (also called the Pap smear) looks for cell changes, allowing cervical cancer to be prevented before it starts. It is recommended for women between the ages of 21 and 65. However, it only screens for cervical cancer, and not for any other forms of gynecological cancer. The HPV test, on the other hand, checks for the virus that can cause precancerous cell changes.
Most women only begin seeing their gynecologist regularly after they become pregnant, and therefore do not discover they have cancer until several weeks into their pregnancy. This can be dangerous to both mother and baby. It is important for all women to have regular gynecologic exams, especially those considering becoming pregnant. The earlier the cancer is caught, the better the odds are for treatment.
If detected early enough, many types of gynecological cancer, including cervical, can be prevented. See your doctor regularly, even if you aren’t currently pregnant. Additionally, you can also reduce your risk by taking a few simple steps: see your health care practitioner regularly for Pap tests, don’t smoke, use condoms, and limit your number of sexual partners.
If you do not have health insurance or cannot afford regular visits to a doctor, you may be able to get Pap tests at little or no cost thanks to the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. You can learn more on the CDC’s website.