The American Social Health Association (ASHA) and the National Cervical Cancer Coalition (NCCC) have named January Cervical Health Awareness Month. During January, NCCC and its many local chapters across the country highlight cervical cancer topics. The emphasis is on HPV disease, screening, vaccination and the importance of early detection.
Cervical Cancer History and Stats
Prior to the 1960s, cervical cancer was a common cause of cancer death in American women. But in the past 50+ years, the rate of cervical cancer death has dropped by more than half. This can be attributed to the wider use of the Pap test. This simple test, which examines extracted cells from the neck of the uterus, can find abnormal cells in their earliest stages.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), it was estimated that for 2016, about 12,990 new invasive cervical cancer diagnoses were made, with about 4,120 women dying from the disease.
While most cases of cervical cancer are discovered in women under 50, older women can contract the disease, as well. In fact, about 20 percent of cervical cancers diagnosed are in women over 65. However, women who get regular cervical cancer tests before that age are rarely diagnosed. Also rare is cervical cancer in women under age 20.
How Cervical Cancer Develops
Cervical cancer develops slowly. It begins as dysplasia, a term for the precancerous condition. In dysplasia, detected by a Pap test, usually 70 percent resolve on their own. In addition to the Pap, there is an HPV test. When combined with a Pap test in women over the age of 30, it can help identify those at risk of developing the disease.
However, if dysplasia is left undetected, it can become cervical cancer. If cervical cancer spreads, it potentially reaches the bladder, intestines, liver and lungs. This is another reason why Pap tests are important, as women may not even realize they have the disease until it is advanced or metastasizes.
Risk Factors for Cervical Cancer
While these risk factors below don’t always mean they will cause cervical cancer, they do increase the odds of developing the disease. And understanding these risk factors allows you to empower yourself by controlling the risks you can eliminate or change.
Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) Infection
This is the most important risk for cervical cancer. Human papillomavirus (HPV) can infect the cells on the surface of the skin and in the genital area. It is spread during skin-to-skin contact. HPV, which actually includes a group of over 150 related viruses, causes papillomas, more commonly known as warts. While a vast majority of the reproductive-age population gets infected with various types of genital HPV, in most cases the immune system clears up the infection. However, in about five percent, a consistent infection results, and the high-risk strain of HPV is responsible for nearly all cervical cancer cases.
Other cervical cancer risk factors include:
- Chlamydia infection
- Diets low in fruits and vegetables
- Family history of cervical cancer
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
- Long-term use of birth control pills
- Low economic status (less healthcare/PAP tests)
- Pregnancy (full term) below age 17
- Three or more full-term pregnancies
- Weight issues/being overweight
- Diethylstilbestrol (DES)
So many women, so many stories. This is true of cervical cancer screenings, as I have known many women instructed to return for follow-up PAP tests due to suspicious findings. However, for women of a certain age, one rare but prevalent risk factor is mothers who took the hormonal drug Diethylstilbestrol (DES). This drug was given to women to prevent miscarriage in the years between 1940 and 1971. Although rare, there is nevertheless a chance of cervical or vaginal cancers in daughters born of women who took DES. Although it was many years ago, I clearly remember being routinely asked as part of my medical check-up at my local Planned Parenthood if my mother had taken DES. Not even knowing what it was, both my mother and I were taken aback when I called from the clinic to ask her. Fortunately, her answer was an emphatic no, she had never taken DES.
Control the controllables. Use Cervical Health Awareness Month to get educated. Speak with your doctor, ask about the vaccines to prevent HPV infections, get screened, and practice good lifestyle habits, including sexual habits (using condoms can provide some although not complete protection from HPV).