January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. And with 11,000 new cases diagnosed in the United States each year, it's the second leading cause of death due to cancer among women (breast cancer is the first). But with a 95 percent survival rate, it's also one of the most treatable forms of cancers - if caught early enough. Read on to find out more about the prevention and detection of cervical cancer and how to protect yourself from this disease.
Pap smears prevent cervical cancerHere's a reason why you shouldn't skip your regular check-up with the gyno: According to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, 11 percent of United States women report that they do not have their pap test screenings. This is a scary stat considering that six out of 10 cervical cancer diagnoses occur in women who have never received a pap test or have not been tested in the past five years.
So, how often should you be getting a pap smear? Experts say you only need to get one once every two or three years once you've hit 30 years old, unless you've had irregular paps in the past. And in that case, you should still get one every year.
HPV test offers protection from cervical cancerA pap test isn't the only test you should get at the gyno: Many experts recommend you also receive the HPV test. Why? Because HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer, and according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 20 million Americans have HPV and 6.2 million people become infected each year – including an alarming rate of teenage girls (Click to find out if the HPV vaccine leads to teen promiscuity). That's at least half of all sexually active women.
The HPV test picks up anything that a pap smear missed, including strains of high-risk types of HPV that may lead to cervical cancer. So to rule out HPV (or treat it if you have it), ask your doctor about a relatively new procedure called the digene HPV test.
Factors that increase your risk of cervical cancerHPV isn't the only factor that will increase your risk for developing cervical cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, a family history of the disease (like a sister or mother) will double your chances. Ethnicity also plays a major role in the risk factors: Hispanic women are at a 50 percent higher risk, while African-American women are 1.5 times more likely to develop the disease than non-Hispanic white women. In addition, smoking doubles your chances of developing cervical cancer, as does being infected by other STDs.
Do you have cervical cancer?If you have an early stage of cervical cancer, chances are you will not experience any symptoms. Like many cancers, the disease remains painless until it's in its later stages. But if you're experiencing any sort of irregular bleeding, pain during sex or pelvic pain, it wouldn't hurt to get checked out just in case. After all, a trip to the gynecologist may feel like a burden, but it could save your life.
Need more information? Read on
National Cervical Cancer Coalition
What you need to know about Gardasil, HPV and cervical cancer
Your (very personal) health at 20, 30, 40, 50
HPV vaccines: What you don't know