January is National Cervical Health Awareness Month, so here is information on cervical cancer and assessing your or your loved ones’ risk for this disease.
Cervical cancer is a common kind of cancer in women. It is a disease in which malignant cells are found in the tissues of the cervix, which is the opening of the uterus. Before cancer cells are found on the cervix, the cervical tissues go through changes in which abnormal cells begin to appear. This condition is called “dysplasia.” Later, the cancer starts to grow and spread deeper into the cervix and surrounding areas.
According to the National Cancer Institute, strong risk factors include:
• early age of first intercourse
• a history of multiple sexual partners
• genital human papillomavirus (HPV) infection or other sexually transmitted diseases
• a presence or history of other genital tract abnormalities
HPV is a group of viruses that includes more than 100 different strains or types. More than 30 of these viruses are sexually transmitted. Most people get HPV soon after they start having sex. The majority of people who become infected with HPV will not have any symptoms and the infection will clear up on its own. However, HPV can cause normal cervical cells to turn abnormal. If HPV goes away, the cervical cells go back to normal. But if HPV lingers for many years, the abnormal cells can turn into cancer.
There is no treatment for HPV, but there is a vaccine that protects against the four HPV types that cause most cervical cancers and genital warts. This vaccine is most effective in females who have not yet had sex. But young, sexually active females still may benefit. The Gardasil vaccine is given for young females between the ages of 9 and 26.
Women age 60 and older are at greater risk for cervical cancer than women in other age groups because they are less willing or able to seek early screening, according to www.gachd.org. Some risk factors, according to the National Cancer Institute, include active or second-hand smoking, poor nutrition and a current or past sexual partner with risk factors for STDs or HIV/AIDS.
There are no real symptoms of the early stages of cervical cancer. That is why is it is so important that your doctor does a series of tests regularly to look for it.
The first of these is a pap smear, which is done by using a piece of cotton, a brush or a small wooden stick to gently scrape the outside of the cervix to retrieve cells that can be examined under a microscope.
Women who are or have been sexually active, or have reached age 18, should have pap tests and physical exams regularly. Older women should continue to have regular physical exams, including pelvic exams and pap tests. Women who have had consistently normal pap test results may want to ask the doctor how often they need to have a pap test.
Women who have had a hysterectomy should talk with their doctor about whether to continue to have regular pap tests. If the hysterectomy was performed for treatment of a pre-cancerous or cancerous condition, the area still needs to be sampled for abnormal changes. If the hysterectomy was performed because of a non-cancerous condition, such as fibroids, routine pap tests may not be necessary. However, it still is important for a woman to have regular gynecologic examinations as part of her health care.
Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.