Texas Oncology Marks National Cervical Awareness Month
Terri Pustilnik, M.D. - Texas Oncology
While cervical cancer deaths have declined over the last several decades due in large part to prevention and early detection through routine Pap tests, it was once the leading cause of death among women. January is designated as National Cervical Health Awareness Month with the hope of raising awareness of the importance of good cervical health and detecting cervical cancer in its earliest stages.
Cervical cancer is a disease in which cancer cells form in the cervix. If discovered and treated in its earliest stages, the survival rate is 91 percent after five years. Yet, in spite of greater awareness, an estimated 1,250 women in Texas were diagnosed with the disease in 2011. Therefore, it is critical that women see their doctor yearly for their annual Pap screening test.
One of the main causes of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV) which is a common sexually transmitted infection. Women who have had many sexual partners or began having intercourse at a young age face an increased risk for HPV infection and therefore should be screened regularly for cervical cancer. It is important to note, however, that not all women with the HPV infection will develop cancer.
In addition to HPV, women with HIV and other immunosuppressant diseases have a higher-than-average risk of developing cervical cancer. And, women who smoke double their risk of cervical cancer compared to nonsmokers.
The early changes related to cervical cancer may not come with warning signs; however, women may notice symptoms and pain as the disease worsens. If any of the following symptoms or signs are present, women are encouraged to consult their physician for proper testing:
• Abnormal vaginal bleeding
• Unusual vaginal discharge
• Painful intercourse
• Post-menopausal bleeding
• Pain in the pelvic area
The Pap test is the most effective screening tool for cervical cancer. Women should have a Pap test every year beginning at age 21 or no later than three years after first having sexual intercourse, whichever comes first, regardless of whether they have received the HPV vaccine. Women in their 30s with three consecutive normal Pap tests may limit screenings to every two or three years. Physicians may recommend that women have more frequent screening if certain risk factors are present.
Young women may also receive vaccinations to prevent the types of HPV infections that cause cancer. Two vaccines have been approved for use in females age 9-26 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The vaccines may reduce a woman’s risk of cervical cancer, but it is important to remember that HPV vaccines cannot eliminate an existing infection.
Women diagnosed with cervical cancer should consult with a gynecologic oncologist to determine their specific treatment needs. There are several treatment options for cervical cancer, including chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery, depending on the stage of the disease. Each method may be used alone or in combination with other treatments.
Researchers continue to make advances in the fight against cervical cancer. However, until a cure is discovered, regular screenings, awareness, and healthy lifestyle choices such as eating well and exercising regularly are among the best tools a woman has to reduce her risk for this cancer.
Editor’s note: Dr. Terri Pustilnik is a gynecologic oncologist at Texas Oncology-Deke Slayton Cancer Center, 501 Medical Center in Webster, and Texas Oncology-Houston Medical Center, 7515 S. Main St., Suite 740 in Houston. Dr. Christine Lee is a gynecologic oncologist at Texas Oncology-The Woodlands East, 920 Medical Plaza, Suite 300 in The Woodlands, and Texas Oncology-Houston Willowbrook, 13300 Hargrave Rd., Suite 190 in Houston. Texas Oncology has practices throughout the Greater Houston area, including specialists in medical oncology, radiation oncology, gynecologic oncology, urology, and breast care.