By Colleen Townsend, Special to the Daily Republic
Early detection of cancer through screening programs is a key factor to decrease the number of deaths and complications due to cancer illnesses.
It is well established that effective screening for cervical cancer leads to early diagnosis, which improves treatment options and successes. The cervix is the lower, narrow part of the uterus (womb), which functions as a canal opening to the vagina.
Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer for women in the U.S. and is the second most common cancer in developing countries. Death rates from cervical cancer vary by region and are directly related to women’s access to screening and treatment programs. Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common finding in women with cervical cancer.
HPV is a common infection that can be passed from one person to another during sex. Most people will have HPV at some point in their life and for most women with HPV it will go away on its own. There are many types of HPV and some cause changes in the cervix that can lead to cervical cancer. When HPV stays in the body over time, it may cause cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer occurs in women who have ever been sexually active in their life and is rare in women who have never been sexually active. Other factors that increase the risk for cervical cancer include HIV infection, using birth control for more than five years and having several sexual partners over your lifetime.
Two screening tests help detect cervical cancer early, which allows for early treatment:
• The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancers, cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately.
• The HPV test looks for the virus (human papillomavirus) that can cause these cell changes.
Both tests can be done in a doctor’s office or clinic. During the Pap test, the doctor will use an instrument, called a speculum, to widen the vagina. This helps the doctor examine the vagina and the cervix, and collect a few cells and mucus from the cervix and the area around it. The cells are sent to a laboratory. In a Pap test, the cells will be checked to see if they look normal. In an HPV test, the cells will be tested for HPV.
It is recommended that screening tests begin at age 21 for all women. The frequency for which a person is tested depends on the type of test your provider does in their office. Please talk with your provider about a cervical cancer screening test.
The HPV vaccine can protect against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical cancer. This vaccine is most effective when given before sexual activity begins. Therefore, HPV vaccine is recommended for preteens and young teens (ages 11 to 13) and can be given up to 26 years old. Some adults 27 to 45 may benefit from this vaccine as well. Please talk with your health care provider about the HPV vaccine for you or your children.
Screening guidelines for cervical cancer do vary by each person’s individual risk. Most women should begin screening by age 21 years old. All women should talk to their health care provider about cervical cancer screening, HPV vaccination and HPV prevention to determine the right way to prevent, detect and treat any signs of cervical cancer.
Colleen Townsend, MD, is a member of Partnership HealthPlan of California.