Education and awareness are some of our most powerful weapons in the fight against cervical cancer, but this is a topic that doesn’t get a lot of attention. When’s the last time you gave your cervix a second thought?
How can you stay healthy?
Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV (human papillomavirus) which is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection, but practicing safe sex and using condoms can prevent transmission of HPV. It’s estimated that about 79 million Americans currently have HPV, but because it rarely causes observable symptoms most don’t even know they are infected. HPV causes changes in cervical cells which can then develop into cancer.
The good news is that it’s possible to detect and treat these changes early, before they become dangerous. There are two ways that we are currently fighting HPV.
There is now a highly effective vaccine against the types of HPV which most commonly cause cancer. The CDC recommends that both boys and girls receive two doses of the vaccine between the ages of 11 and 12. If you didn’t get the vaccine as a preteen you may still be eligible for it: it’s currently available for young women up to the age of 26.
Many women of childbearing age never received the HPV vaccine and are no longer in the age window where vaccination makes sense. This is where screening comes in, and it can and does save lives. An HPV test is not regularly conducted as part of a routine STI screening, so if you want to know your status, you’ll need to ask specifically.
Most importantly, the Pap smear is a highly effective cervical cancer screening. By examining cervical cells under a microscope, your health provider can catch any changing cells before they ever become cancerous. An annual Well Woman visit which includes a Pap smear is your best defense against cervical cancer.
Most insurance companies are required to provide coverage for Well Woman visits and cervical cancer screening without a co-payment, so check with your provider. You may be able to get screened at no cost to yourself.
Every year, almost 13,000 women receive a cervical cancer diagnosis. The shocking thing about that number is that experts say that this disease is almost completely preventable with the help of vaccines and screening. In fact, over the last 40 years, the death rate from cervical cancer has been cut in half: that is phenomenal news, but we can do better.