Annual visits to your gynecologist may not be comfortable, but they could save you from getting cervical cancer.
This is important considering cervical cancer was recently found to have a much higher death rate than previously thought (especially among black women), according to the New York Times.
Pap smears can detect precancerous cells which, if found, allows for interventions to stop those cells’ progression into cervical cancer. For girls and young women, the introduction of the HPV vaccine ten years ago has now made cervical cancer a highly preventable cancer.
Your annual checkup with your gynecologist is important, as most cases of advanced cervical cancer are found in women who have not had routine gynecologic well-woman care, including a pelvic exam and a pap smear, said Dr. Kevin Schuler, a gynecologic oncologist at St. Elizabeth’s Edgewood Cancer Care Center.
An annual pelvic exam is recommended. During that exam, your doctor may also perform a pap smear annually if you are age 21 to 30, or every three years after age 30.
What happens when cervical cancer is found?
When cervical cancer is found early, it is highly treatable and associated with long survival and good quality of life, the CDC reports. Notably, Erin Andrews, sportscaster for Fox Sports, was treated for cervical cancer recently and is on her road to recovery, as reported by The Monday Morning Quarterback.
Symptoms, typically only found in advanced cases of cervical cancer, include abnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain and/or unusual or foul-smelling discharge, Schuler said.
There will be about 12,820 new cases of invasive cervical cancer diagnosed this year and approximately 4,210 women will die from cervical cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
What causes cervical cancer?
Most cervical cancer is caused by exposure to HPV ““ the human papillomavirus ““ which is why the HPV vaccine is recommended for all girls and women ages 9 to 26, Schuler said. The CDC recommends three doses of the HPV vaccine for girls – and boys – ages 11-12, when their immune response is particularly robust.
Since the HPV vaccine was introduced a decade ago, the cancer-causing virus has decreased among young women by almost two thirds, according to a recent study in Pediatrics.
“The HPV vaccine has the intent to markedly cut down the level of cervical cancer, as most of the cancer is HPV related, which is a sexually transmitted infection. The purpose of the vaccine is to fight off the infection before it can do damage to your cervix,” Schuler said.
HPV is very common and typically has no outward symptoms.
“HPV is a pretty prevalent virus. Upwards of 80 percent of women between 19-25 have been exposed to it,” Schuler said. “HPV doesn’t have any symptoms in terms of an exposure.”
In addition to causing cervical cancer, HPV can lead to cancer of the vagina, vulva, anus, penis and throat.