January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. Although cervical cancer is discussed more now than in the past, many women still know little about the disease.
About 13,200 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2018 and more than 4,100 will die of the disease. In Iowa alone, 110 women will be diagnosed.
Most cervical cancers can be prevented by getting vaccinated for the human papillomavirus (HPV) and recommended cancer screenings beginning at age 21. But there is more you should know.
1. Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. The virus, spread through sexual contact, is responsible for more than 90 percent of all cases. HPV is very common in the U.S., infecting nearly one in every four Americans, but most infections won’t lead to cancer.
2. The HPV vaccine is most effective when given to preteens, but teens and young adults who have not already been vaccinated should also receive it. The HPV vaccine is recommended for 11- to 12-year-old girls and boys. Research shows the immune system response is strongest at this age. The vaccine is also recommended for girls ages 13 to 26 and most males ages 13 to 21 who haven’t already completed the vaccine series.
3. African-American and Hispanic women are more likely to be diagnosed with and die of cervical cancer. The rate of cervical cancer for Hispanic women in the U.S. is about 44 percent higher than non-Hispanic whites. The rate is similar for African-American women, who are twice as likely as white women to die of the disease. These disparities are caused in part by lower screening rates for minorities.
4. Smoking increases your risk for cervical cancer. Women who smoke are twice as likely to develop cervical cancer as those who don’t.
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5. Your Pap test can help you prevent cervical cancer (or detect it early). A pelvic exam and Pap test can reveal precancerous conditions of the cervix that do not usually cause symptoms. Begin regular cervical cancer screening at age 21, even if you have been vaccinated for HPV. Women in their twenties should have a Pap test every three years. For women ages 30-65, the preferred way to screen is with a Pap test combined with an HPV test every five years, or a Pap test every three years.
6. An abnormal Pap test does not mean you have cervical cancer. Typically, abnormal cells can be monitored and will go away on their own, but the most serious cell abnormalities can lead to cervical cancer if left untreated. If you have an abnormal Pap test, your health care professional may recommend further testing to clarify the initial results and determine if treatment is necessary, depending on your age and family history.
To learn more about prevention, symptoms and treatment, visit www.preventcancer.org/cervical.
• Barbara Grassley is a 30 year breast cancer survivor, a member of the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program, and the spouse of U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley.