Written by SMH Family Nurse Practitioner Maggi Tabano
Over the last 40 years, the mortality rate for cervical cancer patients has been cut in half, thanks to the increased prevalence of the Pap test. In many cases, cervical cancer can be avoided altogether.
To put yourself in the best position to prevent it, here are some facts every woman (and man) should know about cervical cancer:
Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV).
HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that causes about 99 percent of cervical cancer cases. The virus has more than 100 different types, the most common being HPV 16 and HPV 18, which lead to approximately 70 percent of all known cervical cancers.
About 14 million new HPV infections are diagnosed every year. Many cases of HPV clear up on their own, but persistent infections are what can lead to serious health issues.
Cervical cancer is often preventable.
The HPV vaccine is an important preventive measure. There are three different types of Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccines for HPV: Gardasil, which was approved in 2006; Gardasil 9, which was approved in 2014; and Cervarix, which was approved in 2009.
Gardasil protects against the most common types of HPV (16 and 18), and Gardasil 9 adds additional protection against several other high-risk HPVs.
HPV vaccine is recommended for young men and women, ages 9 to 26, and has proven to be quite effective. Gardasil 9 was shown to be 97 percent effective in preventing cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancer, as well as the additional types of high-risk HPVs it targets.
All women should get yearly pelvic exams.
It is crucial for all women age 21 and older, regardless of sexual orientation, to be screened for cervical cancer by getting a regular Pap smear. The screening collects cells from the cervix to be examined for any abnormalities. Women ages 21 to 29 should have a Pap every three years, provided the results of their previous Pap were normal. For women ages 30 to 64, Pap smears should be performed every five years, as long as previous results were normal.
In addition to this Pap smear schedule, it is crucial that women visit their healthcare provider yearly for a pelvic exam. A pelvic exam is different than a Pap test and can help detect other gynecological illnesses and abnormalities.
Cervical cancer patients often have no obvious symptoms at first.
Some women have no obvious symptoms before being diagnosed with cervical cancer, which is why it is so important to maintain a consistent Pap and pelvic exam schedule, regardless of whether or not you’re experiencing pain, discomfort or any other issues.
The most common symptom is abnormal bleeding. For those who still have their periods, any bleeding in between period cycles is considered abnormal. Women with irregular periods may have a harder time distinguishing abnormal bleeding, so it’s important for all women to pay close attention to their bodies.
Only you can recognize what is out of the ordinary for you. Everyone is different, so if something doesn’t seem quite right, seek medical attention.
An ARNP with advanced training in genetic counseling, Maggi Tabano, MSN, AOCN, is certified as a family nurse practitioner by the American Nurses Credentialing Center and as an advanced oncology nurse practitioner by the Oncology Nursing Certification Corp. Tabano, a former University of South Florida professor in the graduate-level oncology program for nursing students, is dedicated to improving patient care through disease prevention, education and counseling.