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Did you know that cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women? Nearly 13,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year; about a third of those women will die from the disease. Fortunately, it is also one of the most preventable cancers.
January is recognized as Cervical Cancer Awareness Month — a great time to emphasize the importance of screenings for women and how essential they are for early detection.
Screening is the most important way to prevent cervical cancer. About 50 percent of women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer have never had a pap smear, and another 10 percent haven’t had one in the last five years. Therefore, it’s essential for women to keep up with recommended screenings.
In the past few years, the recommendations for cervical cancer screening have been revised. In fact, some of the new recommendations for who and when a women should be screened are downright confusing, even to gynecologists like me! These changes are based on scientific evidence that demonstrated that cervical cancer is almost always associated with a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV), that the cancer develops slowly over years not months, and that it is extremely rare in women under 21.
Regularly screening by a health care provider is key to prevention and early detection. Women should begin a pap smear test beginning at age 21 to test for abnormal cells.
These are some of the age-based recommendations for screenings:
• Women ages 21-29 should receive a cytology-based screening (pap smear) every three years.
• Women ages 30-65 should be co-tested with a cytology-based screening and HPV test every five years, or cytology alone every three years.
• Discontinue screening at age 65 if prior screening has been normal.
If you have been diagnosed with high-risk HPV, don’t panic. As I tell most of my patients, HPV is a virus. Like most viruses that try to attack our bodies, your immune system usually fights off all types of HPV including the high-risk ones and nothing happens. However, the virus may become reactivated in your body later, and therefore you will need regular screening more often or for a longer period of time. Your health care provider will be able to determine this.
Although screening remains the best approach to preventing cervical cancer, vaccination is still recommended to prevent certain high-risk subtypes of HPV that may cause cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that cause about 90 percent of cervical cancers.
The CDC recommends that women get the HPV vaccination beginning at ages 11-12 (can be given as early as 9 years old), and up to age 26. Early vaccination is important so that their bodies can build up a stronger immune reaction.
Talk to your health care provider for more information screening or the HPV vaccine. Need a physician? Call Wilson Medical Center’s Physician Referral Line at 800.424.DOCS (3627) to find one today.
Dr. Arthur Hanson is board-certified in obstetrics and gynecology. He practices at Wilson OB-GYN located at 2500 Horton Blvd. in Wilson. The office number is 252-206-1000.