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What Every Woman Needs to Know About Preventing Cervical Cancer

What Every Woman Needs to Know About Preventing Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is almost entirely preventable, yet it still strikes about 12,000 women in the United States each year, including 4,000 who die from the disease.

Since January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, the medical team at Midwest Regional Health Services in Omaha, Nebraska, encourages you to take a few minutes to learn how to prevent this disease. 

Cervical cancer is cancer that starts in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus, where a baby grows during pregnancy. 

Key prevention steps include an HPV vaccination and routine Pap and HPV screening tests. Thanks to these tools, cervical cancer fatalities have dropped by 50% in the last 40 years.

What do a Pap test and HPV screening entail?

Both tests are performed alongside pelvic exams during your routine well-woman visit. To run the tests, your health professional gently collects cells from the cervix for analysis.

The Pap test examines these cells under a microscope to identify cancer or precancerous changes. Women who schedule regular Pap tests rarely get cervical cancer since these tests detect abnormalities at the earliest stage.

Most invasive cervical cancers are found in women who haven't had regular Pap tests. The HPV test looks for high-risk types of HPV that may cause pre-cancers and cancers of the cervix.

Pap and HPV tests take only minutes and are usually painless, though you may experience pressure or discomfort. 

These screenings are live-savers — quite literally — because early cervical cancer is asymptomatic. In its more advanced, less treatable stages, cervical cancer may cause bleeding between menstrual cycles or abdominal cramping. 

Abnormal Pap smear results and positive HPV tests

Each year, over 3 million women receive abnormal Pap smear results, but less than 1% are diagnosed with cervical cancer. Abnormal Pap smear results aren’t cause for immediate panic.

Abnormal results can be caused by such factors as:

If your results are abnormal, your provider discusses next steps. These likely involve additional testing. 

As for a positive HPV test, about 80% of women encounter at least one HPV type in their lifetimes. The virus typically spreads through vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Many carriers don’t realize they have HPV because the virus often doesn’t cause symptoms.

Of the over 150 types of HPV, about a dozen are considered high-risk strains, and only two cause cancers involving the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, or anus. 

The good news: An HPV vaccine targets the types most prone to causing cervical cancer and other associated cancers. The vaccine also guards against variants causing most genital warts.

Getting vaccinated against HPV

The vaccine is most effective when administered before a person becomes sexually active. The American Cancer Society recommends HPV vaccination for children ages 9-12 and young adults ages 13-26 who haven't been vaccinated or completed their doses. 

HPV spreads through skin-to-skin contact, including sexual activities, but can also be transmitted without intercourse. 

Your risk of contracting HPV increases when you have many partners. Condoms provide some protection against HPV, but they don't guarantee complete prevention. 

Take action today

To book your Pap and HPV tests and for all of your primary health care needs, contact Midwest Regional Health Services today.

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