January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. Cervical cancer was once a leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States. Today, screening and prevention have greatly reduced the impact of this form of cancer. Still, more than 14,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer each year, despite the disease being preventable with vaccination and appropriate screening. As with many cancers, early detection is one of the best forms of preventative care for cervical cancer along with vaccinations.
HPV vaccines can help prevent infection from both high-risk HPV types that can lead to cervical cancer and low risk types that cause genital warts. Since almost all cases of the disease are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, vaccines that protect against the virus could prevent the vast majority of cases. The CDC recommends all boys and girls get the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12 as the vaccine produces a stronger immune response when taken during the preteen years. For this reason, up until age 14, only two doses are the vaccine are required. The vaccine is available for all males and females through age 45 but, for those 15 and older, a full three-dose series is needed. Cervical cancer is a disease in which cancer cells arise in the cervix, which connects the uterus to the vagina. HPV is almost always the cause of cervical cancer, which is why vaccines against the virus are an important part of cervical cancer prevention strategies.
A Pap test can find cell changes to the cervix caused by HPV. Usually, cervical cancer develops slowly over time, making Pap test screening another powerful prevention measure. A Pap Test is a procedure during which cells are collected from the surface of the cervix and examined. The Pap test can both detect cancer at an early stage, when treatment outcomes tend to be better, and detect precancerous abnormalities, which can then be treated to prevent them from developing into cancers. HPV tests find the virus and help healthcare providers know which women are at highest risk for cervical cancer. Pap and HPV tests (either alone or in combination) are recommended for women over 30: each woman should ask her health care provider how often she should be screened and which tests are right for her.
If you, or a loved one, need a pap test or HPV vaccine series, contact Murray County Medical Center at (507) 836-6111.