Cervical Service

PacMed doctor speaks in honor of Cervical Awareness Month

By Allegra Antwine on January 29, 2018

Society has done a good job of bringing much deserved attention to breast cancer; routine exams and care have been ingrained as imperative rituals that must be kept up on. This month, breast health shares the spotlight with its below-the-belt female counterpart. In honor of Cervical Awareness Month, Pacific Medical Centers' Family Medicine and Adolescent Medicine Dr. Brandi Shah, MD, MPH discusses how proper care, vigilance and general awareness can contribute to lifelong cervical wellness.

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. In honor of this, can you explain the primary health concerns related to cervical health?

Staying on top of one's cervical health is imperative to preventing potential health risks such as cervical cancer, which is linked to HPV (human papillomavirus) infection. The most important thing for women to know is that cervical cancer is highly preventable. Forty years ago, cervical cancer was the highest cancer risk for women. For many decades the United States has practiced a robust screening program to detect precancerous and cancerous cervical changes and encourages routine pap smears, which has reduced cervical cancer to one of the least prevalent female cancers detected in US women today. It is important to know that cervical cancer affects different ages, communities and races of women differently, so encourage all friends and family to get screenings when they are due.

What can women do to prevent these health issues from arising? Are there day-to-day maintenances that are beneficial in this capacity?

Being proactive is always the best approach when your health is involved. Women can prevent health risks of HPV and cervical cancer by getting routine screenings starting at the age of 21. As long as the screenings are normal, women can expect repeat screenings every 3 to 5 years up to the age of 65. Additionally, the HPV vaccine is recommended for boys and girls, starting at age 11-12, which will ensure that, by the time they become sexually active later in life, they will be at far less risk for the high risk types of HPV that cause cervical cancer (and genital warts).

Previously, women were encouraged to get screened as soon as they had their first sexual encounter. However, because young women's bodies are still developing, science has found that their bodies typically clear the HPV infection on its own before it leads to the risk of cervical cancer. The new guidelines encourage all women ages 21-65 to get routine screenings every three to five years, depending on if you have Pap screening with HPV co-testing.

If someone is diagnosed with HPV or cervical cancer, what can they do to make the issue easier to handle? What are the available treatment protocols?

Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV, which is a sexually contracted disease. There are hundreds of types of HPV; the high-risk types cause precancerous and cancerous changes in the cervix. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection and most people will have it at some point in their life because it is often "silent." It can clear on its own without treatment, and may not have severe symptoms or side effects. However, if the infection does cause disease, like cervical changes/cancer, genital warts, or other rare types of cancer in men and women, your provider can treat the infection and affected body parts, which may include removing genital warts or doing focused procedures to treat the cervix. Sometimes more involved surgery or treatments, like chemotherapy or radiation, are needed to treat more advanced cases of cervical cancer. Your primary care provider can refer you to the specialists you need to see in any case.

What else would you like readers to know about cervical health, prevention, and treatments?

The key piece of advice I'd like all women to know is that both HPV and cervical cancer are highly preventable, and it's imperative that we commit to routine exams and Pap smears to ensure we're being proactive about our cervical health and reproductive health overall.

Additionally, there are some risk factors to cervical cancer that most people should be aware of, such as smoking, having multiple sexual partners and not using condoms. It's important for women to consider all of the associated risks and the importance of proactivity to protect themselves and their health.

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