BY LINDA JERZAK
Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner
January marks Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and according to the American Cancer Society, approximately 12,000 new cases of invasive cervical cancer are diagnosed each year. The good news: cervical pre-cancers are diagnosed far more often than invasive cervical cancer, thanks to increased screening with the Pap test. The screening procedure can find changes in the cervix before cancer develops, and it can detect cervical cancer in its early stages, when the disease is most curable.
Cervical cancer is usually a slow process that starts with abnormal changes known as dysplasia, and eventually cancer cells begin to form and spread more deeply into the tissue of the cervix and surrounding areas. There are usually no symptoms, but thanks largely to the increased use of the Pap test; the cervical cancer death rate has declined by more than 50 percent over the last 40 years.
Understanding the risk factors and detection methods for cervical cancer are crucial to early detection.
Four truths about cervical cancer from the American Cancer Society include:
• Cervical cancer tends to occur in midlife: Most cases are found in women younger than 50 but it rarely develops in women younger than 20. Often, older women do not realize that the risk of developing cervical cancer is still present as they age.
• There are usually no symptoms: There are usually no symptoms of cervical cancer, and, left undetected, cervical cancer was once a major cause of death for American women. The best way to find cervical cancer early is to have regular screening with a Pap test. Being alert to any signs and symptoms of cervical cancer can also help avoid unnecessary delays in diagnosis.
• Several risk factors increase the risk of developing cervical cancer: The most important risk factor for cervical cancer is infection by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a group of more than 150 viruses. Other risk factors include smoking, having a weakened immune system, a diet low in fruit and vegetables, and having a family history of cervical cancer.
• Early detection greatly improves the chances of successful treatment: Today, a test to detect HPV is often used as a follow-up when abnormalities are detected on a Pap smear. It can also be used as a screening test on its own, and, in one recent study, it was nearly twice as effective as the Pap test in detecting early cervical cancer. The current HPV vaccine is available to anyone under the age of 26 years, but is most effective when administered in adolescence. Anti-cancer vaccines have been found effective in preventing not only cervical cancer in women, but also cancers of the head, neck and throat, as well as rectal cancers in both men and women. Your primary doctor or gynecologist often can do the tests needed to diagnose cancers and pre-cancers and may also be able to treat pre-cancer.
Women with a history of serious cervical pre-cancer who have had regular screening can stop cervical cancer screening as long as they haven’t had any serious pre-cancers found in the last 20 years. Women with a history should continue to have testing for at least 20 years after the abnormality was found.
With careful attention to screening tests, women now have a way to gain the upper hand on cervical cancer.
Linda Jerzak is a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner with Ascension Medical Group in Rhinelander and Woodruff. For more information, please call 715.361.4700 (Rhinelander) or 715.356.8140 (Woodruff) or visit ascension.org/wisconsin