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Dr. Bridget Gibson: What to know about cervical cancer

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Dr. Bridget Gibson

At one time, cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer death among women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, the number of cases and deaths have decreased significantly in the past 40 years. Today, it is the fourth most common cancer in women. This decline can be attributed to more women getting regular Pap tests, which find cervical precancers.

If detected early and managed effectively, cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treatable forms of cancer.

What is cervical cancer?

The cervix connects the uterus (womb) to the vagina (birth canal). Although all women are at risk for cervical cancer, this disease most often affects women over age 30.

Exposure to certain types of the human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main cause of cervical cancer. HPV is a common virus that spreads from person to person through sexual contact. At least half of sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lives and are able to fight the infection or simply resolve on its own and cause no symptoms, but persistent infection can cause cervical cancer in women.

Not all types of HPV cause cervical cancer. Some types cause genital or skin warts and other skin disorders.

What are the risk factors for cervical cancer?

—Risk factors for cervical cancer include the following:

—Having HIV (the virus that causes AIDS)

—Having weakened immune system due to long-term immunosuppression

—Being sexually active at a young age

—Having multiple sexual partners

—Smoking

—Having given birth to three or more children

—History of sexually transmitted infections

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

Since cervical cancer develops slowly over time, there are usually no signs and symptoms early on but it may cause vaginal bleeding and pelvic pain later on, including:

—Vaginal bleeding after sexual intercourse, between periods or after menopause

—Unusual vaginal discharge

—Pain during sexual intercourse

What can I do to reduce my risk?

Women as early as the age of 21 can get screened regularly to lower the risk for cervical cancer. Below are screening options to help prevent or detect cervical cancer early.

—Pap test (or Pap smear): this procedure involves gently scraping cells from the surface of the cervix and vagina using brushes to look for precancers that may develop into cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately.

—HPV test: this laboratory test is used to check for certain types of HPV infection that can cause cell changes. The test may be done using the sample of cells removed during a Pap test.

What is the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that commonly cause cervical cancers and prevents new HPV infections. However, it does not treat existing infections or diseases. The HPV vaccine works best when given before exposure to HPV.

The vaccine is recommended for preteens aged 11 to 12 years but can be given starting at age 9. It is not recommended for adults older than 26 years old because HPV vaccination in this age range provides less benefit, as more people have already been exposed to HPV. Those who have received an HPV vaccine should still get screened for cervical cancer regularly.

It is important to get the recommendation of your treating physician to properly assess your eligibility for an HPV vaccine. If you experience any of the symptoms mentioned earlier, please seek medical attention.

Dr. Bridget Gibson is a family medicine physician for Brookwood Baptist Health.