January is Cervical Health Awareness Month

Each year, more than 11,000 women in the United States get cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is a cancer that starts in the cervix — the lower part of the uterus. Cancer starts when cells begin to grow out of control and crowd out normal cells. These extra cells form a tumor.

Do you know what age you should begin screening for cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer used to be one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women. However, the death rate dropped significantly with the increased use of the PAP test. The test can find changes in the cervix and detect abnormal cells early before they turn into cancer.

The American Cancer Society recommends that all women should begin cervical cancer testing (screening) at age 21. Half of the women with cancer of the cervix are diagnosed between 35 and 55 years of age. More than 15 % of cases of cervical cancer are found in women older than 65. Therefore, older women should talk to their healthcare provider to find out if the screening is still needed.

Women between the ages of 30 and 65 can also get the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) test with the PAP test to see if they have HPV. An HPV infection spreads through sexual contact and is the cause for almost all cases of cervical cancer.

Symptoms to be aware of:

Early cancers of the cervix and precancerous cervical cell changes generally do not cause symptoms. When there is advanced cervical cancer there are symptoms you may experience such as:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding or
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge
  • Painful intercourse
  • Bleeding after intercourse
  • Post-menopausal bleeding
  • Longer or heavier periods
  • Pain in the pelvic area

Although these symptoms may not be caused by cervical cancer, the best way to be sure is by consulting your doctor.

Risk factors

There are several risk factors that increase your chance of developing cervical cancer. Yet, HPV is the main risk factor for cervical cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are about 79 million Americans who currently have HPV, but many people with HPV don’t know they are infected.

Besides HPV there are other risk factors for cervical cancer that include:

  • Smoking
  • A weakened immune system
  • Chlamydia infection
  • A diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • Being overweight
  • Long-term use of oral contraceptives
  • Intrauterine device (IUD) use
  • Having multiple full-term pregnancies
  • Being younger than 17 at your first full-term pregnancy
  • Family history of cervical cancer
  • Diethylstilbestrol (DES)
  • Economic status

 You can lower your risk of getting cervical cancer by:

  • Getting an HPV vaccine (if you are 26 or younger)
  • Getting regular PAP tests
  • Being monogamous
  • Using condoms

Proton therapy treats cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is very curable when found and treated early. Proton therapy may be the best option to consider for cervical cancer. When gynecological cancers are detected early, doctors at the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center are able to precisely target tumors while sparing critical organs such as pelvic organs, bladder, kidneys and pelvic bone marrow.

The most important thing you can do to prevent cervical cancer is to be tested. By scheduling your well-woman exam today, you are taking the next step in living a healthier life.