By: Emily Frost
Despite the staggering statistic that nearly 4,000 American women die from cervical cancer each year, little is known about this disease. Now that’s the bad news, but here’s the good news: if found early, cervical cancer is one of the most treatable types of cancer. Furthermore, there are several ways you can prevent cervical cancer all together.
To keep you and your cervix healthy, we spoke with Debra Miller, MD, a Suburban Hematology-Oncology Associates oncologist at GMC Center for Cancer Care-Hamilton Mill, and tool a closer look at these need-to-know facts.
Q: What makes cervical cancer so deadly?
A: Because cervical cancer may remain in the early stages for 2 or more years, it often causes no symptoms. And by the time symptoms develop, the cancer has likely already become advanced. Even then, symptoms can still be easy to miss. However, if you notice irregular menstrual bleeding, pain in the pelvis, pain during sex or abnormal discharge, it’s important to see your doctor.
Q: Where is the cervix and what does it do?
A: The cervix connects the vagina and uterus. As a part of the female reproductive system, the cervix plays an important role in childbirth as well as menstruation.
Q: What are the risk factors for cervical cancer?
A: It isn’t just sexual behaviors that up your cervical cancer risk. There are a number of lifestyle factors that can impact a woman’s risk, too. For instance, smoking can significantly increase the risk for cervical cancer. In fact, it is estimated that women who smoke are about twice as likely as nonsmokers to get cervical cancer.
Another factor is the virus that causes AIDS. Because this virus damages the body’s immune system and puts women at a higher risk for HPV infections, they also have an elevated risk for cervical cancer as HPV is one of the main risk for cervical cancer.
Experts also note that eating a diet low in fruits and vegetables, being overweight, using oral contraceptives long term or having three or more full-term pregnancies can all increase cervical cancer risk.
Q: Does HPV really increase your cervical cancer risk?
A: Yes. Actually experts warn that HPV is the number one risk factor for cervical cancer. Surprisingly, it is believed that HPV will cause nearly 100% of the 13,000 cases of cervical cancer in the U.S. this year.
There isn’t just one kind of HPV, though. In fact, HPV is actually the name of a group of more than 150 different viruses. Typically, these viruses cause warts (papillomas) on various parts of the body, depending on the strain. While not all HPV strains cause cancer, there are some that lead to cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus and throat.
Q: Are there tests for cervical cancer and HPV?
A: The best test to screen for cervical cancer is the Pap test. This test looks for any changes in the cells of the cervix that may be caused by an infection. The Pap test is also effective at finding abnormal cells that are cancerous or may progress into cancer.
When it comes to screening for HPV, it’s just as simple and painless as the Pap test. During your routine Pap, request that your doctor run a HPV co-test to rule out all strains of the virus.
Q: When is it important to get these tests?
A: It is best to work with your doctor to determine the regularity of getting routine Pap tests and HPV co-tests. As a general rule of thumb, experts recommend starting these tests at age 21 and continuing to get them every one to three years. And while most cervical cancer cases are found in women under age 50, more than 10% are actually found in women over 65.
Q: What should you do to prevent cervical cancer?
A: There are a number of simple, everyday changes you can make to reduce your overall cervical cancer risk. Everything from not smoking and eating a balanced diet, to having safe sex and maintaining a healthy weight can minimize your risk. But there is no substitute for working with your doctor. By having routine screenings and evaluating your risk factors, you are utilizing the best defense possible.
Q: What are the treatment options for cervical cancer?
A: The best treatment for cervical cancer depends on your unique health history and needs. The experts at Gwinnett Medical Center’s Center for Cancer Care will work with you to develop a customized treatment plan tailored to your specific condition. With an experienced team of specialists, the latest in care options and extensive resources, you will receive comprehensive, whole-person care that ensures the best possible outcome. Visit gwinnettmedicalcenter.org/cancer to learn more.