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How to Protect Yourself Against Cervical Cancer

20090113_ehealth_storyIn observance of National Cervical Health Awareness Month (January), gynecologists at Cooper University Hospital remind women of the importance of cervical cancer prevention and the need for Pap tests.

“A yearly Pap test is the main screening test for cervical cancer and the best way to prevent it,” said David P. Warshal, M.D., head of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at Cooper.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cervical cancer is the easiest female cancer to prevent, with regular screening tests and follow-up. Two tests can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early:

  • The Pap test (or Pap smear), which looks for pre-cancers—cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately.
  • The HPV (human papillomavirus) test, which looks for the virus that can cause these cell changes.

The Pap test is recommended for all women and can be done in a doctor’s office. During the painless test, the doctor collects a few cells from the cervix and the area around it. The cells are then placed on a slide or in a bottle of liquid and sent to a laboratory. The laboratory checks to be sure that the cells are normal.

If an HPV test is being done in addition to the Pap test, the cells collected during the Pap test will be tested for HPV at the laboratory. Women should talk with their doctor about whether the HPV test is right for them.

“An annual pelvic exam – an office-visit examination of the vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries and rectum – also is important to check for signs of disease,” Dr. Warshal said.

When to Get Screened for Cervical Cancer

According to the CDC, regularly scheduled Pap tests should begin at age 21 or within three years of a female’s first sexual activity, whichever occurs first. The Pap test is one of the most reliable and effective cancer screening tests available. It also can detect other conditions that might need treatment, such as infection.

In addition to the Pap test, the HPV test is used for screening women aged 30 and above, or for women of any age who have unclear Pap test results.

“For women aged 30 and over, whose screening tests have been normal for several years, the chance of developing cervical cancer within the next few years of their last test is very low. That’s why some doctors might extend up to three years the interval between screenings, particularly if HPV testing is negative.  However, regular, yearly pelvic exams are still very important to women’s health,” Dr. Warshal said.

Also important is to continue getting regular Pap tests regardless of advancing age or sexual inactivity. “Post-menopausal women or women who are sexually inactive should not assume that Pap tests for them are unnecessary. If a woman is over 65 and has had normal Pap results for several years, or if a woman has had her cervix removed during a hysterectomy, her doctor might tell her that it’s OK to stop getting Pap tests. But that is a decision to be made in consult with her doctor; otherwise, she should continue with her regular visits and screenings,” Dr. Warshal said.

Cervical Cancer Symptoms

There usually are no noticeable signs of early cervical cancer, but the disease can be detected early with yearly check-ups, including Pap tests to check for abnormal cells. Possible signs of cervical cancer include vaginal bleeding and pelvic pain; however, several other conditions can cause the same symptoms. Be sure to consult a doctor if any of these problems occur:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding.
  • Unusual vaginal discharge.
  • Pelvic pain.
  • Pain during sexual intercourse.

Remember, the best way to prevent cancer of the cervix is to get regular screenings for the cell changes that can lead to the disease.

“Pap tests almost always can show these cell changes before they turn into cancer. That’s why it’s important for women to get regularly scheduled Pap tests and to follow up with their doctor after any abnormal Pap test result. Abnormal cervical cell changes can be treated to prevent the development of cervical cancer,” Dr. Warshal said.

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