January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month and doctors at Atrium Health Navicent invite the community to help raise awareness about cervical cancer by encouraging women to make their annual gynecology visits a priority.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) has estimated about 13,960 new cases of invasive cervical cancer would be diagnosed in the United States in 2023, leading to about 4,310 deaths. Hispanic women have the highest rates of developing cervical cancer, and Black women have the highest rates of dying from the disease.
Cervical cancer is most frequently diagnosed in women between the ages of 35 and 44. Many older women don’t realize that the risk of developing cervical cancer is still present as they age. More than 20 percent of cases of cervical cancer are found in women over 65.
Early on, cervical cancer may not cause apparent signs and symptoms. Advanced cervical cancer may cause abnormal bleeding or discharge from the vagina, such as bleeding after sex. If you have any of these signs, see your doctor. The signs and symptoms may be caused by something other than cancer, but the only way to know for sure is to see your doctor.
While cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women, the mortality rate dropped significantly with increased use of the Pap smear test, according to the ACS. The screening procedure can detect changes in the cervix before cancer develops and can also identify cervical cancer early, when it's easier to treat.
Stay on Track with Annual OB/GYN Visits
One of the best ways to reduce your risk of developing gynecologic cancer is by keeping up with the recommended schedule for Pap smear tests and screenings at your annual OB/GYN appointment.
“It’s important for women to keep their annual gynecology visits so we have the best chance to detect cervical cancer early, said Dr. Siping He, an Atrium Health Navicent OB/GYN. “During these visits, doctors review your medical history, check your vitals, conduct a breast exam, perform a palpation of the abdomen and lymph nodes, and then do a pelvic exam, if indicated. Regular visits also give us the opportunity to screen for other conditions, helping women live longer, healthier lives.”
Knowing what to expect during these visits can help ease any anxiety about gynecologic tests and screening tools.
A cervical cancer screening many include a Pap smear and/or an HPV test. These are lab tests that look for abnormal cell changes that may lead to cervical cancer. During this test, a speculum is used to open the vagina so that doctors can see the cervix. Using a brush, cells are removed and sent to a lab for testing.
A pelvic exam is a routine physical exam of external genitals and internal organs. Doctors use this exam to assess sexual and reproductive health. During a pelvic exam, doctors use a speculum to open the vagina and perform a physical and visual inspection of the vagina and cervix. For both cervical cancer screenings and pelvic exams, doctors use lubricant to make the speculum insertion go more smoothly.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has issued guidelines for cervical cancer screenings, including Pap smear tests and screenings for human papillomavirus (HPV). They are broken down by age:
If you are 21 to 29 years old: You should start getting Pap tests at age 21. If your Pap test result is normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait three years until your next Pap test.
If you are 30 to 65 years old: An HPV test along with the Pap test. This is called co-testing. If both of your results are normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait five years until your next screening test.
If you are older than 65: Your doctor may tell you that you don’t need to be screened anymore if:
The Role of HPV in Cervical Cancer
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV infection. HPV is a common virus that can be passed from one person to another during sex. There are many types of HPV. Some HPV types can cause changes on a woman’s cervix that can lead to cervical cancer over time, while other types can cause genital or skin warts.
According to the ACS, HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer, and almost 37,000 men and women are diagnosed with HPV cancers in the United States every year. HPV is so common that most people get it at some time in their lives. HPV usually causes no symptoms, so you can’t tell that you have it. For most women, HPV will go away on its own; however, if it does not, there is a chance that over time it may cause cervical cancer.
Studies have shown that giving the HPV vaccine to boys and girls ages 9 to 12 can prevent more than 90 percent of HPV cancers as children grow older. The vaccine is safe, effective and long lasting. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children and adults age 26 and younger receive the vaccine through a series of two or three doses, depending on the age at vaccination. Some adults aged 27 through 45 may decide to get the HPV vaccine based on a discussion with their doctor, if they did not get adequately vaccinated when they were younger.
Atrium Health Navicent offers OB/GYN care in Macon and Forsyth. For more information, and to find a doctor, visit www.NavicentHealth.org.
For information about services available at the Atrium Health Navicent Peyton Anderson Cancer Center, ranging from prevention and diagnosis to treatment and survivorship, call 478-633-3000.
For more information about well-child visits and recommended immunizations, visit www.navicenthealth.org/service- center/children-s-health.