How women can take charge of cervical health

Maintaining cervical health is an important component of self-care for women. The National Cervical Cancer Coalition indicates that nearly 13,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. The Canadian Cancer Society estimates that 1,350 Canadian women will have been diagnosed with cervical cancer for 2019 — and around 410 will have died from it.

Cervical cancer can be deadly, but it is often preventable. Learning more about the disease can ensure women get the treatment they need.

Human papilloma virus

Human papilloma virus, commonly refered to as HPV, is a very common infection that spreads through sexual activity. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion states that HPV is responsible for almost all cases of cervical cancer. Roughly 79 million Americans currently have HPV, and many aren’t even aware they are infected. HPV can also cause genital warts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommend that preteen girls and boys get the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12. This vaccine can prevent HPV-related cancers, which contribute to cervical cancer as well as cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus, and other parts of the body. Women and men up to age 45 can still get the vaccine even if they were not vaccinated as children. Adults require a three-dose series of the vaccine.

HPV contraction can be prevented through safe sex practices, including limiting the number of one’s sexual partners.

Cervical cancer screenings

In addition to HPV vaccinations, women should have regular examinations with a gynecologist that will include both visual exams of the cervix and surrounding tissues and testing. The NCCC says testing will include a Pap test, which will determine if there are cellular changes on the cervix, as well as an HPV test, which can look for the virus itself. These tests (either alone or in combination) are recommended for women age 30 and over. Screening frequency typically depends on doctor preference and patient risk.

Cervical cancer diagnoses

Many cases of cervical cancer can be prevented, and there are various treatment options for those diagnosed with the disease. Depending on the stage the disease has reached, doctors typically perform some sort of surgery to treat the area. Hysterectomy, which takes out the uterus and cervix, is the most common way to treat cervical cancer, advises the American Cancer Society. Laser surgery to burn off cancer cells or cryosurgery to freeze them are other options. Sometimes only a portion of the cervix is removed. The American Society of Clinical Oncology says the five-year survival rate for cervical cancer averages 66 percent, although the rate varies depending on age, race and ethnicity.

Women can take charge of their cervical health by speaking with their doctors about HPV and cervical cancer and by scheduling the screenings they need.

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