HCA Virginia Physicians - March 23, 2022

Forty years ago, cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer deaths for women in the United States. Regular cervical cancer screenings, what patients know as a Pap test or a Pap smear, changed that.

This year, just over 14,400 cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed. In comparison, an estimated 281,550 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021, according to the American Cancer Society®.  

“The decline in cervical cancer is a direct result of advances in vaccinations, regular cervical examinations, and that it is not a fast-moving type of cancer,” says Dr. Harris Wexler, a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist with LewisGale Physicians in Salem, Virginia.

Dr. Wexler breaks down these reasons – and highlights how you can reduce your risk of cervical cancer.

HPV doesn’t always turn into cancer

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is an infection that can lead to cervical cancer (and other cancers, including head and neck, anus, penis, vagina and vulva). HPV is a very common infection that is spread by sexual contact. There are typically no symptoms with an HPV infection.

“HPV infections are actually very common and nothing to be overly alarmed about,” reassures Dr. Wexler. “In almost all cases, a person’s immune system will fight off the infection over the course of a year or so.”

Vaccines can prevent HPV infections

Vaccinations can help reduce your risk of developing an HPV infection. Dr. Wexler encourages young women and men who have not been vaccinated to ask for one of the newer HPV vaccines.

“Most strains of the HPV virus do not cause cancer, and the HPV vaccine provides protection against the nine strains that are at greatest risk of becoming cancerous,” he says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the HPV vaccine for routine vaccination for children ages 11 or 12 (it can be started as young as age 9) and encourages everyone 26 years and younger to be vaccinated.

Cervical cancer is a slow-growing cancer

It takes an average of 10-14 years for an HPV infection to turn into cancer. During that time, noticeable changes can be found in the cervix.

“Since HPV infections typically don’t have visible symptoms, regular Pap smear tests are really important. If signs of cervical cancer are found, it can then be treated in its earliest stages,” states Dr. Wexler.

Symptoms of advanced cervical cancer may include:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Unusual vaginal discharge
  • Pain during sex
  • Pelvic pain

As Dr. Wexler explains, “If the results of your Pap test are abnormal, it just means that cells are present that could potentially turn into cervical cancer. There are several steps that can be taken to help prevent those cells from progressing into cancer.”

If you have an abnormal Pap test result, your doctor will collect more cells from your cervix to be analyzed at a lab. Typically, one of two things will happen after that biopsy:

  • Results may show a mild abnormality, which typically indicates an HPV infection. Your doctor may recommend having a Pap test in six to 12 months to see if your body clears the infection during that time.
  • Results show an abnormality. Your doctor may recommend an in-office procedure, called loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP).This quick and easy procedure removes all abnormal cells from your cervix. No general anesthesia is required, and you will go home immediately after the procedure.

Regular Pap tests keep you healthy

It’s clear that regular cervical cancer screenings are key to preventing an HPV infection from developing into cervical cancer. These include Pap tests and HPV tests.

Currently, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends the following cervical cancer screening guidelines:

  • Women who are 21 to 29 should have a Pap test every three years

    • Women 25 to 29 can have an HPV test alone, but Pap tests are preferred
  • Women ages 30 to 65 have three options for cervical cancer screenings:

    • Pap test and HPV test every five years
    • Pap test alone every three years
    • HPV testing alone every five years

Dr. Wexler also cautions women to not skip their Ob/Gyn appointments in their “off” years of cervical cancer screening.

“Your annual examination is not just for Pap smears,” he states. “It is an opportunity for us to have an open, caring conversation about your reproductive and sexual health, your periods, and any other questions or concerns you may have.”

Dr. Wexler and the team of experienced Ob/Gyns at LewisGale Physicians offer women’s health services for patients of all ages. Providing you proven and expert guidance, they will help you feel comfortable, safe, and empowered when it comes to your health.

Call (540) 772-5900 to schedule your appointment with Dr. Wexler. He is currently accepting new patients.