January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. As a woman, keeping yourself healthy is more than just eating well and exercising. Getting routine tests to help you prevent illnesses like cervical cancer is also important. Arshad Sheikh, MD, a gynecologist with Adventist Medical Group shares facts about cervical cancer and how to keep your cervix healthy.
What Does it Mean to Keep Your Cervix Healthy?
Dr. Sheikh: Keeping your cervix healthy simply means to take actions to prevent cervical cancer and other sexually transmitted diseases. There are several ways to keep your cervix, the lower, narrower portion of the uterus, healthy and prevent cervical cancer, these include:
- Having routine pap smears every three years starting at the age of 21. You can visit the gynecologist or many primary care offices offer the service to their patients.
- Receiving the HPV vaccine to prevent certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) that can cause cancers and genital warts. Males and females can be vaccinated beginning at age 11 through age 45.
- Using condoms during sexual intercourse to protect yourself from HPV and other sexually transmitted infections.
Are Cervical Screenings Necessary?
Dr. Sheikh: Yes! Starting at age 21, women should be getting routine pap smear tests. These are important because they can detect if you have any precancers or cell changes that can cause cancer. During your pap smear you can also be tested for HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases. While rare, cervical cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer for women worldwide. It is also one of the most preventable types of cancers since it develops over time. Typically, it’s diagnosed in women between the ages of 35 and 44.
What are the Main Causes of Cervical Cancer?
Dr. Sheikh: The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main cause of cervical cancer in women. While HPV is very common, and it is likely you will get it at some point in your life, for most women, it doesn’t turn into cervical cancer. Cervical cancer forms when the cells that line the cervix start to develop abnormally. Overtime, the cells may return to normal or they may become cancerous.
What are the Signs of Cervical Cancer?
Dr. Sheikh: The early-stages of cervical cancer usually doesn’t show any signs or symptoms. Therefore, it is imperative that women get routine pap smears to test for cancerous cells in the cervix. More advanced cervical cancer can produce symptoms like:
- Vaginal bleeding after sexual intercourse, between periods or post menopause
- Watery or bloody vaginal discharge with a foul odor
- Pain during sexual intercourse
How is Cervical Cancer Treated?
Dr. Sheikh: Your doctor will work with you to select the best treatment plan based on the type of cervical cancer, how advanced it is and how far it has spread. Possible treatment types may include surgery, chemotherapy and or radiation therapy.
Your annual physical with your doctor should cover all your necessary health screenings so you can stay up-to-date on any needed vaccinations or other tests. Talk with your doctor at your next visit about any health screenings you need.