Knowledge often equates to power—especially when it comes to our health and well-being. For those who have access to modern medicine, information about prevention is just as important as the ability to treat diseases and illnesses themselves. During the month of January, organizations around the nation recognize Cervical Health Awareness for a full thirty-one days, but for all women, this attention to their health should last a lifetime.
Many might associate cervical health with a simple gynecological visit, but the details surrounding this subject are far more complex than just a regular visit to the doctor. From potential treatments and prevention methods, to understanding just how serious cervical cancer can be, it’s the mission of health professionals to educate and empower women to focus on this aspect of their bodily health. Let’s explore a bit more about what complete cervical health awareness entails and how you can ensure that you remain healthy.
An Important History
Prior to modern gynecological screenings, cervical cancer used to be one of the most prevalent forms of cancer death in the United States. It remains to be a very prevalent danger to women today, too; despite quick and easy detection methods used in clinical settings across the nation, the statistics surrounding this disease are still shocking. The American Cancer Society has estimated that in 2019 alone, 13,170 new cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed and over 4,200 women will die from it. Even with continuous advancements in detection and treatment options, these statistics have remained stagnant for longer than many would like.
Although cervical cancer can be pre-diagnosed and not as invasive as other forms, it’s still recommended by healthcare professionals to closely monitor this area of one’s health. Cervical cancer is most prevalent in women between the ages of 35 and 44, yet older women are also at risk, with over 15% of all new cases occurring in women over the age of 65. Many ethnic groups are subject to the disease, although studies have shown that both Alaskan natives and American Indians are at the lowest end of the risk spectrum.
What Is Cervical Cancer?
Most instances of cervical cancer are attributed to the presence of HPV, or human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease that affects a specific set of cells in the cervix. These cancerous cells are quite slow to develop, and in many cases, a woman will have HPV and pre-cancerous cells without even experiencing any symptoms. More advanced instances of cervical cancer can include pain during sex, irregular bleeding, or vaginal discharge—issues that typically trigger a visit to one’s gynecologist.
Because detecting cells when they are in the pre-cancerous stage is critical to one’s chances of effective treatment, seeing your doctor regularly is very important. The presence of HPV can be determined through a Pap test, a simple exam that checks the health of your cervical cells. If and when the results of this procedure come back as abnormal, additional screening may be necessary. This can include a small biopsy to further examine the cells in one’s cervix to determine if cancer is present.
In many cases, precancerous cells can be treated through an in-office procedure that freezes, destroys, and removes the affected tissue. When cervical cancer is detected early on and addressed promptly, it often means that one’s chances for developing it again later in life are slim. As with any type of cancer, how early it is detected plays a large role in the ability to treat it effectively. Medical professionals strongly recommend taking a proactive role in your cervical health, as precancerous findings are far easier to manage than a full cancer diagnosis.
The HPV Link
Because cervical cancer is strongly tied to the presence of human papillomavirus, medical professionals have recently created a strong campaign for vaccinations as well as screenings for both men and women, beginning as early as the teen years. Categorized as one of the most common STDs out there, HPV can turn into cancer in many areas of the body in addition to the cervix.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that both boys and girls receive the HPV vaccine Gardasil 9 between the ages of 11 and 12 to give the body time to fully develop a strong immunity. This ensures that, even if teens are sexually active without using protection, they will have a better chance of not contracting the virus. Depending on the age of the recipient, Gardasil 9 may be administered in two or three doses.
As an additional benefit, the HPV vaccine also helps to protect against contracting genital warts. While this issue is one that’s manageable with treatment, it’s not directly linked to cervical cancer, yet can spread to other partners through sexual contact. Gardasil 9 is currently recommended for individuals between the ages of 9 and 45, and while the clinical guidelines for including patients so young is understandable, it hasn’t gone without its fair share of concern. Some parents are concerned that administering the HPV vaccination to adolescents will encourage them to have sex earlier in life, although there has not been any data to link the two.
Increasing Your Awareness
While getting a Pap test every so often is a great first step toward maintaining cervical health and deciding to take Gardasil 9 as an extra measure can be helpful, it’s important to understand the specifics around testing and prevention. The American Cancer Society has released very specific guidelines for navigating the world of cervical health awareness as follows:
- Whether or not women have received the HPV vaccination, they should begin regular screenings after the age of 21. A Pap test can be administered once every three years, and it’s recommended that HPV screening methods are not used between the ages of 21 and 29.
- After the age of 30, women can undergo screening less often, now once every five years, but the combination of a Pap test and HPV test, called co-testing, should be implemented. Between ages 30 and 65, women can also simply receive a Pap test every three years in order to maintain proper cervical health.
- Once women reach age 65, screening methods and systems may vary depending on her own personal history with pre-cancerous cells or abnormal test results. Those who have undergone a hysterectomy may also want to discuss their specific situation with their healthcare provider to see what testing schedules are most appropriate.
After a Diagnosis
As with all types of cancer, the severity of it can greatly impact the treatments available. When dealing with cervical cancer, it’s recommended that you work with a gynecologic oncologist who is familiar with the latest options available. He or she will be able to evaluate the impact of your condition and determine whether one of the following options is best:
- Surgery to remove the cancerous cells may be appropriate, and in some cases, if the cancer has spread, your oncologist might recommend removing tissue from the surrounding areas. A full hysterectomy is sometimes needed to ensure it doesn’t spread to other parts of the body.
- Some stages of cervical cancer will respond well to chemotherapy, the use of pharmaceuticals to shrink and destroy the cancer cells. Types of chemo can vary, and again, the severity of the diagnosis will determine the right option for you.
- Radiation may also be a viable option to treat cervical cancer, as these high-energy rays can work on localized cells that have been affected. Patients who undergo surgery may also opt for radiation afterward to ensure that any cancerous cells remaining are being treated.
Depending on where you live, you might also have access to one of several clinical trials designed to test the efficacy of new treatments. In some cases, individuals who have advanced cervical cancer with a short time left to live may want to explore these options to see if they could help to extend their longevity.
Lastly, alternative methods and therapies are also something to explore, but it’s important to remember that quite a few of the treatments on the market have not been approved by the medical community. Any type of supplement that you take for your cervical cancer should be discussed with your physician first.
Cervical Health Awareness All Year Long
The National Cervical Cancer Coalition has designated January as the month to focus on awareness around cervical cancer, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stay abreast of the condition all year long. Various chapters across the nation allow for various volunteer opportunities to help spread the word and donate to their cause for any who would like to contribute or offer support. Above all else, one of the best ways you can celebrate this month is by taking your own cervical health into consideration.
If it’s been a while since your last visit to the gynecologist, schedule an appointment for a screening. Whether you’re in need of a Pap test, HPV test, or both, it’s never too late to begin this crucial part of your healthcare. Staying informed is half of the battle—the other half is taking action and engaging in preventative measures to bolster your own well-being.
About Slingshot Health
Slingshot Health is a health tech startup that brings top healthcare providers and patients together. Patients bid on the cost of services and healthcare providers accept bids based on availability. Slingshot Health is unique in that it is a mutual marketplace putting both patients and providers back in control. Visit us at slingshothealth.com.