Cervical cancer: What women need to know
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — Regular Pap smear exams have become a lifesaving intervention for some women. The routine practice of Pap smears has reduced cervical cancer from the number one killer of women in the first half of the 20th century to a mild, treatable condition which rarely progresses.
A Pap smear exam determines if there are any changes in the cells of your cervix. The Pap smear can tell if you have an infection, abnormal (unhealthy) cervical cells, or cervical cancer. A Pap smear can detect the earliest signs of cervical cancer. The chance of curing cervical cancer is very high, when caught early. Regular Pap smears have led to a major decline in the number of cervical cancer cases and deaths.
All women should have a Pap smear, along with pelvic exams, as part of their routine health care starting at age 21. Each woman has her own risks and her health care provider should oversee her screening plan. Generally, between 21 and 65 years old, a woman should get a Pap smear every three years if the results are normal. This increased interval of screening acknowledges the role of HPV vaccination in decreasing the most common cause of cervical cancer, HPV.
When to stop having Pap smears is a topic to discuss with your health care provider. Women, who have never had a positive Pap smear, are over age 65, have had a hysterectomy with cervical removal for non-cancer related reasons, are at lower risk to develop cervical cancer. Even when Pap smears are not done, pelvic exams should be performed to screen for ovarian and other pelvic or vaginal cancer.
HPV is a major cause of cervical cancer and one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. Approximately 40 types of HPV are spread during sex. Approximately 75 percent of sexually active people will get HPV sometime in their life. A few types cause cervical cancer if not treated, but most women with untreated HPV will not get cervical cancer. Genital warts are caused by HPV; however these types rarely cause cervical cancer. Most people with HPV have no symptoms and will not know they are infected.
Actions which reduce HPV exposure and decrease the risk of developing cervical cancer include:
- Refrain from sexual activity before age 18
- Limit the number of sexual partners
- Get vaccinated against HPV, if you are between the ages of nine to 26. The HPV vaccine, Gardasil, is a two or three dose series vaccine which protects against the most common cancer causing HPV strains.
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