By Kathy Hubbard
Once the most common causes of cancer death for American women, cervical cancer is on the decline. This is good news. In the last 30 years, according to the American Cancer Society, cervical cancer death rate has gone down by more than 50 percent.
The main reason for the decline in cervical cancer cases is the increased use of screening tests. “Screening can find changes in the cervix before cancer develops. It can also find cervical cancer early – in its most curable stage.
“Another way to prevent cervical cancer is to get vaccinated against human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes most cases of cervical cancer,” ACS states.
Although preventable, the bad news is that ACS estimated that over 12,900 new cases and more than 4,100 deaths from cervical cancer will have occurred in 2015. This is why January has been designated as Cervical Health Awareness Month.
So, what are we talking about? ACS explains that “the cervix is the lower part of the uterus (womb). The uterus has two parts. The upper part, called the body of the uterus is where a fetus grows. The cervix, in the lower part, connects the body of the uterus to the vagina, or birth canal.
Cancer of the cervix begins in the cells lining the cervix. These cells do not suddenly change into cancer. Instead, the normal cells of the cervix first slowly change into pre-cancer cells that can then turn into cancer. These changes may be called dysplasia. The change can take many years, but sometimes happen faster. These changes can be found by the Pap test and treated to prevent cancer.”
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. The description of HPVs would fill more than this column allows, but please bear in mind that there are over 150 related viruses called HPVs, some that can cause warts and some that can cause cancers, especially cancer of the cervix.
To put it simply, any woman who has had sex is at risk for HPV. Add to the risk if you started having sex at an early age, or if you or your partner has had sex with multiple partners.
In addition to having HPV you increase your chances of cervical cancer if you smoke, have used birth control for a long period of time (over five years), have given birth to three or more children or have HIV.
An article published by the Kaiser Family Foundation last September explains the HPV and the HPV vaccine thoroughly. In it they say, “While cervical cancer is the main concern with HPV, the infection affects both women and men and is also known to cause oral, anal, vulvar, vaginal and penile cancers, as well as genital warts.”
In 2006 the federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices first recommended the HPV vaccine for females at age 11 or 12 and up to 26. In 2011 they recommended it for boys 13 through 21 years of age. Kaiser says that’s now changed.
“ACIP recommended the new HPV vaccine in February 2015 for females ages 9-26 and boys ages 9-15. These recommendations are designed to promote vaccination before the initiation of sexual activity and exposure to HPV, when the vaccine is most effective,” the Kaiser article says.
As the subject of vaccinations can often be controversial, I recommend that you have a frank discussion with your pediatrician about the benefits of vaccinating your children.
It’s important to know, that the vaccine does not preclude one from having regular Pap tests. One has nothing to do with the other. The Centers for Disease control recommends that all women start getting Pap tests when they turn twenty one.
There is a ton of reading material on the internet, but your healthcare professional is your best resource for knowing what’s best for you and your family. So, the purpose of today’s lecture is to bring awareness of cervical cancer and hopefully encourage you to have that conversation now rather than when it’s too late.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at 264-4029 or firstname.lastname@example.org.