By Tamera Manzanares
January, recognized as Cervical Health Awareness month, is a good time to highlight measures that can be taken to prevent cervical cancer.
Over the last 30 year, cervical cancer deaths have decreased 50 percent, largely due to more women getting regular cervical screenings or Pap tests, which can detect changes in the cervix before cancer develops. Despite these gains, cervical cancer remains a serious health threat. The American Cancer Society estimates nearly 13,000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer and more than 4,000 died from the disease in 2015.
Cervical cancer is caused by specific types of the human papillomavirus or HPV. HPV is common – more than half of sexually active men and women are infected with HPV at some time. Most people with HPV never develop symptoms or health problems. However, sometimes HPV infections will persist. These can cause cancers in both men and women.
HPV vaccination is recommended for youth, teens and adults ages 11 to 26. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends girls and boys receive the three-dose vaccine (given over a period of six months) at ages 11 or 12. Teens and young adults who are sexually active should still get the vaccine, since it may protect against types of HPV they may not yet have been exposed to. HPV immunization is available to men and women through age 26. Learn more about HPV vaccine.
Regular screenings are the most important weapon against cervical cancer. Women should begin Pap tests at age 21, according to American Cancer Society guidelines. A Pap test involves the swabbing of the cervix (opening to the uterus) for a sample of cells, which are evaluated under a microscope for any abnormal changes. A Pap test usually takes place during a pelvic exam.
Women at higher risk for cervical cancer may also receive an HPV test, which can detect HPV that may cause cancer. HPV is rarely a threat to young women in their teens and 20s; their immune systems usually clear the virus and related cell changes. Cervical Cancer tends to occur in midlife. Co-testing (Pap and HPV tests) is recommended for women 30 and older because HPV infections in this age group are less likely to clear on their own; both tests are more likely to find abnormal cell changes than either test alone.
Women should be screened every three to five years, depending on their age, any health conditions they may have and if they have had co-testing and/or are at a higher risk for cervical cancer.The most important thing to remember is to begin Pap exams at age 21. Your healthcare provider will make recommendations for co-testing, screening frequency and any other follow up.
Northwest Colorado Health provides affordable HPV immunizations and Pap tests. Women 40 to 64 may be eligible for free Pap tests and breast exams through the Women’s Wellness Connection program. For more information, call 970-824-8233 in Craig or 970-879-1632 in Steamboat Springs.