January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. But the recommendations for what testing to have and when it should start have changed over the years. In addition, there is a vaccine that can prevent the number one cause of Cervical Cancer.
Cervical Cancer is described as “a type of cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Various strains of the human papillomavirus virus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection, play a role in causing most Cervical Cancer.”
The last part of that definition, mentioning “various strains of HPV,” has become even more accurate in recent years. Dr. Jennifer Byrd, Chief Medical Officer of the Will County Health Department Community Health Center, says that “in the last decade we have come to know the 90 percent of Cervical Cancers are indeed caused by the HPV virus.”
Paulette Apostolou, a local crusader for battling the disease and a Cervical Cancer survivor, says she has definitely seen some hesitation among the general population due to the HPV issue, and also sometimes a lack of proper follow-up by the patient.
“HPV is a common human virus, but because it is passed by intimate skin to skin contact there can be a stigma attached to it,” Apostolou explained. “It makes many women feel ashamed that they have this cancer. In addition, we have found that the younger age group is sometimes only going in for a Pap test to obtain birth control, and then many of them do not go back for their next scheduled Pap
test. And it is crucial that they take proper care when an abnormal Pap is detected.”
Dr. Byrd says knowing the important, basic facts is also crucial. For example, Cervical Cancer can usually take years to develop. And it is important to note that a Pap test is not needed every year. The best bet is for ladies to be screened every three to five years. Dr. Byrd says the recommendation on where in life to begin that routine has changed.
“It used to be that this was an annual exam, recommended beginning at the age 18, or after the first sexual encounter. Updated guidelines now call for the Pap test regimen to begin at age 21, and then have it spaced out by a number of years depending upon one’s age and personal risk factors.”
Dr. Byrd also pointed out that “while it is quite routine for ladies to know about needing a Pap test, we still often find them wanting the test more frequently than necessary.” Dr. Byrd says annual Pap tests can lead to precautions than are simply not needed.
“There are risks to getting too many screening tests. Some abnormalities found from screening will clear on their own, and doing too much screening can lead to unnecessary tests and treatments. For example, some treatments may cause problems in pregnancy, such as increased risk of preterm births or low birth weights.”
Today’s recommendations call for women to be screened regularly with a Pap test between the ages of 21 and 65, and then Pap testing with HPV co-testing between the ages of 30 and 65.
This means the patient can make a choice at age 30. If you are screened with a Pap test alone, and it is normal, then you need to return for another test in three years. However, if you have the Pap and HPV co-test, and results are normal and negative respectively, you may wait for five years for your next testing. If your tests are not normal, then you need to follow-up with your doctor.
Dr. Byrd pointed out that in addition to preventing Cervical Cancer through screenings, Cervical Cancer is also highly preventable through HPV vaccination. “A major development in combating Cervical Cancer was the creation of a vaccine for HPV, the primary cause. This is the only vaccine we have in medicine that PREVENTS A CANCER. It is given during childhood starting at age 11, and is a three dose series.”
For more on Cervical Cancer, go to https://www.webmd.com/cancer/cervical-cancer/cervical-cancer-topic-overview#1
For more on the HPV vaccine, go to https://www.cdc.gov/hpv/parents/vaccine.html