In the United States, about 15,000 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society, and about 4,300 will die from the disease. Regular screening is the best way to prevent cancer by “catching” it in its earliest stages.
Harbor Community Health Centers provides comprehensive women’s healthcare services to help women of all ages enjoy optimal health and wellness. A big part of that care involves educating our patients, so they can take steps to improve their health. Our team wants you to know these six important things about cervical cancer to help you stay healthy.
#1: In its early stages, you probably won’t have any symptoms
Most women have no symptoms from cervical cancers until it grows and invades nearby tissue. For more advanced cancers, the most common symptom is vaginal bleeding, including bleeding during intercourse. In some cases, you might have pain or pressure in your lower belly, as well.
#2: HPV is the most common cause of cervical cancer
HPV stands for the human papillomavirus, a widespread and extensive family of more than 100 viruses. A handful of these viruses are responsible for nearly all cervical cancers. Other members of this family cause herpes and genital warts.
HPV is almost exclusively spread through sexual contact. The body’s immune system automatically clears most types of HPV. But some types remain, including those that wind up causing cervical cancer.
#3: Routine tests are essential for your health
Pap tests and HPV tests play critical roles in monitoring abnormal changes in and around your cervix that could be a sign of cervical cancer. The number of deaths from cervical cancer has dropped dramatically in the United States, owing largely to the use of regular screening.
Even with a busy schedule, it’s critically important not to skip your routine exams and screenings. Testing is quick and painless, and it can be performed as part of your regular well woman visit. The CDC recommends regular screening beginning at age 21 and lasting until age 65 — or longer if your doctor recommends it.
#4: HPV vaccines help prevent cervical cancer
HPV vaccines target the specific types of HPV that are known to cause cervical cancer. While the vaccine can’t offer 100% protection against these viruses, it significantly reduces your risk of infection — and your risk of developing cervical cancer.
The CDC recommends the vaccine be given at age 11 or 12 — before any sexual contact occurs. Women can be vaccinated up until age 26 if they haven’t been adequately vaccinated previously. From ages 27-45, vaccination may still be considered if you and your doctor think it could be beneficial.
#5: An abnormal Pap test doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer
Abnormal test results can be scary, but very often, they’re due to another cause, like an infection. In any event, don’t let fear of an abnormal result keep you from getting a Pap test regularly. If your test results are abnormal, we might recommend another Pap test or other tests to examine or take a small tissue sample for further evaluation.
#6: Cervical cancer can be treated
With routine screening, many cervical cancers and precancers are caught and treated early. But even if cancer has progressed, there are still treatments, including surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
Schedule your screening today
For women, routine cancer screenings and well woman exams play essential roles in staying healthy at every age and every stage of life. With three locations in San Pedro, California, Harbor Community Health Centers makes it easy and convenient to get tested for cervical cancer and vaccinated for HPV. To schedule your screening or vaccine, call the office, book an appointment online, or stop by our walk-in clinics.