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Texas Oncology Marks National Cervical Health Awareness Month

Publication: Austin Medical Times, Houston Medical Times

Once a leading cause of cancer death in the United States, cervical cancer diagnoses and deaths have decreased dramatically in past decades and have now leveled off, largely due to prevention and early detection through routine Pap tests. January’s National Cervical Health Awareness Month raises awareness of good cervical health and early detection.

If discovered and treated before the cancer spreads from the primary site, the survival rate for cervical cancer is 92% after five years. Despite greater awareness, an estimated 1,420 Texas women were expected to be diagnosed with the disease in 2021. Therefore, it is critical that women have a regular Pap test.

Almost all cervical cancer cases are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection. Women who have had many sexual partners face an increased risk for HPV infection. However, not all women with the HPV infection will develop cancer.

Other risk factors for developing cervical cancer include HIV infection, AIDS, a history of Chlamydia, long-term use of oral contraceptives, multiple childbirths, or women who have had a full-term pregnancy before age 20. Women who smoke double their risk of cervical cancer compared to nonsmokers. 

Cervical cancer may not come with warning signs in the early stages. However, symptoms and pain may be noticed as the disease worsens. Women should consult a physician for proper testing if any of the following symptoms are present:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding

  • Unusual vaginal discharge

  • Painful intercourse

  • Post-menopausal bleeding

  • Bleeding after intercourse

  • Pain in the pelvic area

  • Bleeding or spotting between periods

  • Longer or heavier periods

The Pap test is the most effective screening tool for cervical cancer. Women of average risk in their 20s should have a Pap test every three years, regardless of whether they have received the HPV vaccine. Women age 25-65 should have a Pap test and DNA HPV test every five years or only a Pap test every three years to screen for cervical cancer. The DNA HPV test, given in conjunction with a routine Pap test, may identify existing HPV infections that could lead to cervical cancer. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends another option to screen with the high-risk human papillomavirus (hrHPV) test only every five years. Physicians may recommend that women have more frequent screenings if certain risk factors are present. Women over 65 should discuss previous test results and the risks and benefits of screening with their physician.

Three vaccines to prevent the types of HPV infections that cause cancer are FDA approved for females age 9-26, depending on the vaccine. The vaccines may reduce a woman’s risk of cervical cancer, but HPV vaccines cannot protect against existing infections.

Women diagnosed with cervical cancer should consult with a gynecologic oncologist and radiation oncologist to determine specific treatment needs. There are several treatment options for cervical cancer including chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, surgery, and palliative care. Each method may be used alone, or in combination with other treatments.

Researchers are making advances against cervical cancer. For now, regular screenings, awareness, and healthy lifestyle choices, such as eating well and exercising regularly, are the best tools to reduce risk.

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