Regular Screenings Can Catch Cervical Cancer at a Curable Stage

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By Keith Elbourne, M.D., Bayou Regional Women’s Clinic

If you are a woman between 35 and 55 years of age, you are at the prime time to develop cervical cancer.  Once a major cause of death for women in their child-bearing years, cervical cancer deaths have decreased significantly with early diagnosis and treatment.

January marks Cervical Health Awareness Month to educate women about early detection and the virus that causes this disease.

“About 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer annually,” says Dr. Keith Elbourne.  “Although cervical cancer is one of the easiest gynecological cancers to detect, the mortality rate is still high with more than 4,000 deaths each year.  Getting regular exams is imperative to protect yourself against this disease.”

The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus.  It connects the vagina – or birth canal – to the upper part of the uterus – or womb – where a baby grows during pregnancy.  Cancer can occur in any of these areas.  Abnormal bleeding and discharge is the primary symptom of cervical cancer, which is the 14th most frequent cancer among American women, according to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health.  

The test used to screen for cervical cancer and suspicious changes in cervical cells is called a Pap smear or Pap test, named for Dr. George Papanicolaou, who first proposed using this simple yet effective screening procedure.

Death rate declined significantly

The National Cervical Cancer Coalition (NCCC) credits the test with reducing the death rate from cervical cancer by 70 percent since the 1940s.  The advocacy group calls the Pap test the “single most effective cancer screen in the history of medicine.”

It is recommended that young women begin getting regular Pap tests at 21 or within three years of starting sexual activity, whichever comes first.  At age 30, your doctor may recommend waiting up to three years for your next test if your results have been consistently normal. By age 65, if you have had normal Pap tests for several years, your doctor may suggest you can stop getting screened.  Pap tests also may be suspended if you’ve had your cervix removed during a hysterectomy for reasons other than cancer.

The human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a confirmed culprit in causing the majority of all cervical cancers.  Your doctor may suggest that you have an HPV test to detect the virus, which can cause precancerous cell changes and cervical cancer.  The test also is used to follow up on unclear Pap results.  HPV is passed from person to person during genital contact and occurs in up to 80 percent of women by age 50, the NCCC says.  However, it’s reassuring to know that most women infected with HPV will not go on to develop cervical cancer.

Vaccine approved to prevent key virus

In 2006 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a three-shot vaccination that protects against the two types of HPV causing about 70 percent of cervical cancers.  The vaccine was initially targeted toward females who have not yet been exposed to HPV through sexual contact, specifically those aged 9 through 26.  Vaccinating females against a sexually transmitted disease at such an early age has caused controversy among some parents and family values groups.  However, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends the vaccine, and it is now also approved and recommended for boys age 11-12 to reduce their chance of acquiring genital warts.

Even if women receive the HPV vaccine at an early age, they still need regular Pap tests and HPV screening as recommended by their physicians once they become sexually active.  The vaccine is not effective against all types of HPV viruses, so the Pap test is needed to detect and treat cell changes caused by those before they develop into cervical cancer.

To schedule a woman’s wellness visit or prenatal care appointment with Dr. Elbourne at either location in Zachary or Central, call Bayou Regional Women’s Clinic at (225) 658-1303.

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