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January - Cervical Health Awareness Month

Friday, January 1, 2010

Get the Facts - Gynecological Health

1. What is cervical cancer?

  • Cervical cancer is a disease that affects the lower, narrow portion of the uterus that joins with the vaginal canal. This area is called the cervix. There are two types of cells, known as squamous cells and glandular cells, which may develop into squamous cell carcinoma (cancer of the squamous cells) or adenocarcinoma (cancer of the glandular cells).
  • As cervical cancer develops, cells change from "normal" to "precancerous" (dysplastic). Precancerous cells are abnormal cells on the inner surface of the uterus; they have not broken through the lining of the uterus to become invasive.
  • Cervical cancer usually takes several years to develop. For this reason, screening programs have been effective in detecting precancerous changes early allowing for treatment before cancer develops.
  • When detected early, nearly all cervical cancer cases are curable.

2. Who gets cervical cancer?

  • In the United States, roughly 11,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year.
  • Most cervical cancer cases are diagnosed between the ages of 35 and 55 years old. However, younger women who are sexually active and older women are also at risk. Most cases of advanced cervical cancer are diagnosed in women who have not been getting routine pap tests.

3. What causes cervical cancer?

  • HPV (human papillomavirus) is linked to 99.7% of all squamous cell carcinomas and a large portion of adenocarcinomas.

Other risk factors include:

  • Sexual history
    • Sexual intercourse at an early age
    • Multiple sexual partners
  • Health history
    • Previous cancer diagnosis
    • Weakened immune system and/or HIV infection
  • Lifestyle
    • Not getting regular pap tests
    • Smoking tobacco

4. What is HPV?

  • Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a group of over 100 virus types that are transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. Most strains of HPV are harmless and will clear on their own. But a few "high-risk" strains, if persistent, may develop into cervical cancer.

5. Who gets HPV?

  • HPV is a very common virus. About 80% of sexually active women have contracted at least one strain of genital HPV by age 50. At any given time, approximately 20 million people in the U.S. will have HPV, and approximately 6.2 million are estimated to contract a form of HPV each year.
  • Since HPV rarely produces noticeable symptoms, many people with HPV don't even know they have it.

6. How is cervical cancer detected?

  • The pap test is the best method for detecting cellular changes that may lead to cervical cancer.
  • Depending on your pap test result or your age, an HPV test may be appropriate to assess your risk factors for developing cervical cancer.
  • Your physician can discuss your screening options with you during your annual exam.

7. What is the difference in HPV testing and Pap testing?

  • Pap testing determines if cervical cells are normal or abnormal at a given period in time. During your annual exam, your physician may take a sample of cells from your cervix and send it to a laboratory where the cells are reviewed under a microscope. If the laboratory professional sees cellular characteristics that are questionable, he or she will notify your physician for follow up. The majority of pap tests will be returned as "normal."
  • HPV testing determines if you currently have a high-risk HPV infection. Where the pap test looks for cellular changes that might be caused by HPV, the HPV test looks for the virus itself. If you are over the age of 30 or your pap test results were inconclusive, your doctor may recommend that you get an HPV test in addition to your pap test. The HPV test will tell if you have a high-risk strain of HPV, and are at increased risk for developing cervical cancer.
  • When used together in women age 30 and older, pap testing and HPV testing provide you and your doctor with detailed information about your cervical health.
    • If both tests are negative, your likelihood of developing a severe abnormality is less than 1% over a three year period
    • If your pap test is negative and your HPV test is positive, then your doctor may want to monitor you more closely. Remember that the vast majority of HPV infections clear on their own. So a positive HPV test does not mean you have cancer. It simply provides additional information on your HPV status.

8. If I've had the HPV vaccination, do I need a pap and/or HPV test?

  • The vaccine protects against the two most common — but not all — of the "high-risk" HPV types. Because of this, it's important to continue routine screening even after vaccination. Your physician can discuss appropriate cervical cancer screening at the time of your annual exam based on your health history, risk factors and age.

9. How is cervical cancer treated?

  • Cervical cancer is a highly treatable condition. The choice of treatment is a decision made between a woman and her doctor, considering a number of factors such as the stage of cancer and the desire for future pregnancy. The treatment options for cervical cancer include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, given alone or in combination.

You can learn more about cervical cancer treatment options on the National Cancer Institute (NCI) website.

10. How can I protect myself against cervical cancer?

  • Getting regular pap tests
    The pap test is the most successful cervical cancer screening program. And remember, over 90% of pap test results come back as normal. In the event that your pap test comes back as abnormal, your doctor will recommend appropriate follow-up and possible treatment if necessary.
  • HPV test when recommended
    If your pap test comes back as inconclusive or slightly abnormal then your doctor may recommend an HPV test. Likewise if you are age 30 or older an HPV test may be recommended with your pap test.
  • Continuing your annual exam
    Your annual exam plays an important role in your cervical as well as your overall health. During your annual exam, your doctor checks many things, including your blood pressure, breasts, vagina, and other pelvic organs.
  • The HPV vaccine
    The HPV vaccine can be given to girls and women between the ages of 9 and 26, preferably who are not sexually active or have not been exposed to HPV. The vaccine protects against the two most common — but not all — of the "high-risk" HPV types. Even with the vaccine, however, it is critical to continue having regular pap tests. Used together, the vaccine along with regular pap tests will continue to make cervical cancer one of the most preventable types of cancer.

Information provided from

Family Medicine Network

Healthcare across Sanders County

Thompson Falls


Hot Springs