Preventative screening is crucial for protecting against cervical cancer
January is Cervical Health Awareness Month
Thanks to advances in medicine that include regular gynecological screenings for women, the rate of cervical cancer death in the United States has gone down by more than 50 percent over the last 40 years.
For women who choose to skip regular exams, which include Pap smears or Pap tests, that decision could prevent early stage life-saving discoveries. Throughout January, which is Cervical Health Awareness Month, doctors remind patients of the science that could save their lives. The medical industry widely attributes the steep decline in cervical cancer deaths in the United States to the Pap test.
“The Pap (test) has been such a life changing test for women,” said Dr. Scott Ellis, an OB/GYN at Memorial Regional Health in Craig. “But we tend to fall asleep sometimes and forget to do our regular health screenings.”
Cervical cancer is almost always caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV, which is sexually transmitted. In fact, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, affecting about 79 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Risk factors and testing
The American Cancer Society reports that cervical cancer tends to occur in midlife, mostly in women younger than 50. Hispanic and African-American women have higher rates of HPV-associated cervical cancer than white and non-Hispanic women, according to CDC.
In addition to HPV, other factors for cervical cancer that put women at higher risk include smoking, a weakened immune system, chlamydia infection, a diet low in fruits and vegetables, obesity, long-term use of birth control pills, having three or more full-term pregnancies and other factors. Family history is also believed to be a cause, with researchers suspecting that some women inherit a condition that makes them less able to fight off HPV infection than others.
In 2013, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists changed screening guidelines for cervical cancer. It now recommends that screening start at age 21, and that women ages 21 to 29 should have a Pap test every three years. Women ages 30 to 65 should have a Pap test every five years.
Ellis doesn’t agree with the new regulations for screening and still recommends that women get screened annually.
“It used to be age 18 and every year after, or as soon as a woman became sexually active,” he said. “I think a woman should have a Pap every year so we can find abnormalities early and treat them in their earliest stage.”
Pap tests can reveal changes in the cervix before cancer develops, and the tests can also find cancer very early, when it’s most curable, according to the American Cancer Society. Because there are often no symptoms of HPV, regular health screenings are extremely important.
“The Pap smear has made rates of cervical disease plummet,” Ellis said. “The Pap has probably had more impact on patients’ lives than just about anything.”
To schedule an appointment for a Pap test, contact the MRH Clinic – OB/GYN at 970-826-8230.
When you hear “family medicine,” think of your family doctor — the person who provides you with general health care for all ages.