DECATUR – For years, cervical cancer was known as the silent killer, because by the time symptoms of the slow-growing cancer appeared, it was invading other parts of the body.
Cervical cancer, used to be the leading cause of cancer deaths for women in the U.S., until annual Pap smears became commonplace, catching the cancer in its early, more treatable stages according to the Centers for Disease Control. The test involves taking a sample of cervix cells to examine for abnormalities.
“Most women are very aware they need to have their Pap smear every year, patients are usually the ones that bring it up,” said Dr. Chinelo Echeazu an ob/gyn with Vita Center for Women.
New recommendations and the availability of a vaccination for the Human Papillomaviruses, a cause of cervical cancer, may have some women confused about when they need to be tested; so, during January’s Cervical Health Awareness Month health agencies are urging women to be proactive about their health.
Here are some suggestions on what to ask your doctor about cervical cancer:
Q: Who is at risk for cervical cancer?
A: “Technically it’s any woman that’s sexually active,” Echeazu said. “You can have one partner and still get cervical cancer.” The risk increases with more sexual partners.
Q: Can you inherit it?
A: No. “A lot of women say my mom had cervical cancer, but it doesn’t mean anything,” Echeazu said.
Cervical cancer is caused by the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, HPV. The virus has many strains, some cause genital warts others cause cancer. There are four high-risk strains known to cause cervical cancer.
Q: I heard I don’t need a yearly Pap smear anymore, do I still need to see my doctor that often?
A: Yes. In March 2014, the United States Preventive Services Task Force and the American Cancer Society recommended against routine yearly testing. However, an annual ob/gyn visit for women has value beyond the Pap smear and includes exams to check for other abnormalities.
Q: How often do I need one?
A: It depends on your age, but the invasive exam generally shouldn’t start until age 21. “That’s really to decrease the amount of unnecessary procedures being done for the cervix,” Echeazu said.
The guidelines vary depending on age and what types of tests are being done but a Pap smear is recommended every three years for women ages 21 to 65. Routine screening for ages outside that range is no longer recommended.
Q: What if I got the vaccine?
A: “The vaccine doesn’t mean you can’t get cervical cancer, it just decreases your risk of those four major known causes,” Echeazu said.
Vaccines protecting against four strains of HPV have been available since mid-2000s. The series of shots is recommended for girls as young as 11. In males, it can prevent genital warts.
“The whole point is to get it to the patient before they’re sexually active,” Echeazu said.
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