January 01, 2019
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, a month set aside to raise awareness about how women can protect themselves from cervical cancer and human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV has been shown to be the precursor to most cases of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is a preventable disease, provided women vaccinate early and get pap smears regularly.
About 79 million Americans currently have HPV and about 70% will come into contact with it during their lifetime. HPV is passed from one person to another by skin-to-skin contact. Many who are infected never realize it as they are able to clear the infection without any treatment. In some women, however, the infection persists and can lead to cervical cancer.
HPV can be prevented with the HPV vaccine (it is FDA approved for ages 9-26 as a primary prevention tool) and cervical cancer can often be prevented with regular screenings and treatment of pre-invasive disease (secondary prevention). Cervical cancer is a slow-growing cancer and can be detected via a regular pap test, although many cases of cervical cancer occur in women who haven't had a pap test in many years. This test helps detect precancerous cell changes, leading to early intervention and treatment.
The American Cancer Society recommends the following:
- Cervical cancer screening should begin at age 21
- Women between ages 21 and 29 should have a pap test every 3 years. There is also a specific test for HPV, but it should not be used in this age group unless needed after an abnormal pap test result.
- Women between the ages of 30 and 65 should have a pap test plus an HPV test every 5 years.
- Women over age 65 who have had regular cervical cancer testing with normal results should not be tested for cervical cancer. Once testing is stopped, it should not be started again. Women with a history of a serious cervical pre-cancer should continue to be tested for at least 20 years after that diagnosis, even if testing continues past age 65.
Screening programs for uninsured, low-income women exist, including the Virginia Department of Health Every Woman's Life program. For more information contact Carrie Schaeffer, Cancer Center Social Worker at (804) 289-4837.