January is Cervical Health Awareness Month – a good time to remind women to talk with their physician about their risk for cervical cancer and the importance of screening and vaccination. Here are some facts about the disease and some steps you can take to reduce your risk:

1. Cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a very common sexually transmitted infection that affects one in four people.
The cervix is located in the lower part of a woman’s uterus. Cervical cancer, the growth of abnormal cells in the cervix, is almost always caused by HPV, which is transmitted through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. There are more than 100 types of HPV. Some are low-risk; at least 13 are cancer-causing. Low-risk HPV can cause skin warts on or around the genitals, anus, mouth, or throat.

2. You will not experience any symptoms from early cervical cancer.
It usually takes several years for cervical pre-cancer to change to cervical cancer. Pre-cancer involves cell changes on the cervix that could develop into cervical cancer if left untreated. Early cervical cancer does not cause any noticeable signs or symptoms, but as the disease advances, women may experience:

  • abnormal vaginal bleeding after sexual intercourse
  • back, leg, or pelvic pain
  • irregular periods
  • fatigue
  • a single swollen leg
  • vaginal discomfort or discharge
  • weight loss or loss of appetite

3. Cervical cancer is highly preventable with regular screening.
A Pap test will find any pre-cancers, and an HPV test will identify the virus that puts women at risk. Pre-cancer can be treated to stop cervical cancer before it begins. If HPV is found, you’ll be tested again in a year to determine if your body has cleared the virus or if you need further testing.

Another way to help prevent cervical cancer is by getting the HPV vaccine, which is recommended for females from age 9 to age 26 (the vaccine is also recommended for males from age 9 to age 21; males at high risk should continue to receive the vaccine until age 26). The vaccine protects against the nine types of HPV that are most often linked to cervical cancer. The vaccine will not treat HPV if you already have it.

4. You should have a Pap test at least every three years to screen for cervical cancer.
Starting at age 21 up until age 65, women should receive a Pap test. This can be combined with an HPV test. If your Pap test results are normal, your doctor may say you can wait three years until your next Pap test since your chance of getting cervical cancer in the next few years is low. If results continue to be normal, your doctor may then advise you to wait up to five years for your next Pap test. Research has shown that it is not necessary for women to have an annual Pap test.

If you do not have health insurance or have a low income, you may qualify for a free or low-cost Pap test through the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. Talk with your provider.

5. Consider lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of cervical cancer.
Use condoms, and limit your number of sexual partners to reduce possible exposure to HPV infection. Cervical cancer is also associated with smoking and second hand smoke. Develop a plan to quit if you’re a smoker. A healthy diet and a good exercise routine are also linked to a lower risk of the disease. If you need some help meeting your health goals, try our free wellness classes.

This blog is approved by Leo Brancazio, MD, of WVU Medicine Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Make an appointment: 855-WVU-CARE