January is cervical cancer awareness month. Cervical cancer is the cancer of the cervix, the lower portion of our uterus. Worldwide cervical cancer is the third most common cancer, and in the United States more than 12,000 women are diagnosed each year with slightly over 4,000 dying each year.
What causes cervical cancer?
Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that is incredibly common. About 80% of the population will have had the virus at one time or another by the time they reach 50 years of age. For most of us the virus will go away on its own without any type of intervention needed. For others, when left undetected these abnormal cells continue to multiple and may develop into cervical cancer and death when left untreated.
Prevention is possible
Currently there are two vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, that are available to prevent infection from the two major strains of HPV that cause over 70% of cervical cancer cases. They are most effective before your first sexual experience and are for girls and young women from 9 years of age until 26 years of age. For boys and young men, the Gardasil vaccine also helps to prevent up to 90% of the cases that cause genital warts. Parents should speak to their doctor about this vaccine as they would with any other type of vaccine recommended for their children. Being vaccinated does not mean you should stop being screened for cervical cancer since the vaccines cover most, but not all strains that can cause cervical cancer.
Regularly scheduled pap tests will help detect abnormal cells earlier on. Having an HPV test at the same time as your pap test further increases your chances of early detection. The pap test looks for abnormal cells on the cervix, while the HPV test looks to see what is causing the abnormality. If you’re having sex then use a condom since it may lower your chance of being infected with HPV. Limiting the number of partners can also help decrease your risk, but just like pregnancy, it only takes one person. The only way to absolutely prevent HPV infection along with many other sexually transmitted diseases is abstinence.
Latinas and cervical cancer
Latinas have the highest rates of incidence of cervical cancer than any other group, and also are more likely to die from cervical cancer. Of the slightly more than 4,000 women that die from cervical cancer in the United States each year, about half are Latinas. In some areas areas of the world, the obvious lack of available screening is the culprit. Here in the United States the main issue seems to be our lack of awareness. We don’t know enough. We don’t ask enough questions. We don’t schedule our pap smear exams. We put off our screenings for years. We get our exams and then don’t go back for our followups. We believe that by checking for HPV we will be seen as promiscuous. We worry about our husbands and our children, and we forget to take care of ourselves. If we don’t know how important prevention and early detection are for cervical cancer, then how can we demand access to better healthcare, treatment and funds to help cover the costs of these screenings and vaccination. Prevention starts by taking care of yourself first.