If a simple test could help save your life, would you take it? Since the late 1960s, Pap smears have been instrumental in reducing the rate of cervical cancer. Today, these tests remain an essential part of a woman’s health plan.
“Cervical cancer can be prevented if women receive regular screenings through Pap smears,” said Dr. Sharad Ghamande, Director of Gynecology Oncology at the Georgia Cancer Center. “In general, it takes several years for cervical cancer to develop. If precancerous changes are detected through regular Pap smears, these can be easily treated.”
A simple test saves lives
Cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for women in the United States. However, the number of deaths has dropped dramatically as more women undergo regular Pap smears. The test involves scraping cells from the cervix. Those cells are put through a liquid solution and examined under a microscope by a pathologist. This magnified look at the cells can uncover conditions such as infection or inflammation. It can also detect cancerous cells or changes in the cells that can lead to cancer.
“The majority of women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer have not had a Pap smear in four or five years,” Ghamande said.
Reasons for foregoing the screening can range from a lack of education about the benefits of preventative screenings like a Pap smears or mammograms. Also, women will forego screenings because they believe that because they are exercising and living a healthy lifestyle, then they do not need to see their doctor. Finally, women living in communities where poverty rates are higher face the financial hardships of choosing between health care needs and the need for food, clothing and other necessities.
“As doctors, we need to work on educating our patients about the importance of preventative medicine,” Ghamande said. “They need to know there are steps they can take to prevent a health problem, instead of waiting to go to their doctor after that issue occurs.”
Cervical cancer in America
According to the American Cancer Society, cervical cancer tends to occur in midlife, with most cases found in women younger than 50. However, 20 percent of women diagnosed are over age 65. Studies by the American Cancer Society show Hispanic women are most likely to get cervical cancer, followed by African-Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and Caucasians. American Indians and Alaskan natives have the lowest risk of cervical cancer in this country. The signs that could point to a cervical cancer diagnosis include unusual vaginal bleeding, discharge during sexual intercourse and pain in the pelvis.
Know your cancer risk factors
Ghamande and his team of gynecologic oncologists advise all women to talk with their primary care physician about scheduling a Pap smear. In particular, certain groups of women may be at greater risk for cervical cancer. These risk factors include:
- Human papillomavirus infection. There are many different strains of HPV, including Type 16 and Type 18, which more commonly cause cervical cancer. Ask your physician about tests that can detect these specific types of HPV infection.
- Having many sexual partners.
- Having initial sexual intercourse at a young age.
- Oral contraceptive use.
- Weakened immune system.
“When it comes to preventing cervical cancer, one of the biggest opportunities women have is the human papillomavirus vaccine,” Ghamande said. “I strongly recommend the vaccine for all females between the ages 10 to 26. It is two to three doses over a six-month timeframe depending on the person’s age.”
Inspectors at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have approved multiple vaccines that are safe and effective. The vaccines target the virus strains HPV 16 and HPV 18, which cause nearly 70 percent of cervical cancers. Recently, the Gardasil-9 vaccine was created to include five more antiviral (HPV) strains. HPV vaccination is recommended for both girls and boys starting at the age of 11, however, young adults can get vaccinated up to the age of 26.
“This vaccine has also shown the ability to offer some protection from vaginal, vulvar, anal and oropharyngeal cancers,” Ghamande said.
If you have questions about cervical cancer, HPV and the vaccine, talk to your primary care doctor. He or she can help you determine a course of action to reduce your chances of developing cervical cancer. If you have a daughter or female relative or friend between the ages of 10 and 26, encourage her to talk to her doctor about the HPV vaccines for cancer prevention.