Erin Andrews’ recent revelation that she was diagnosed with cervical cancer four months ago is alarming — especially since cervical cancer usually gets much less press than its commonly diagnosed counterparts, like breast cancer. Unless you’re regularly visiting an OB-GYN (and stats indicate you’re not), you’re probably not hearing much about it — even if you are regularly seeing your general practitioner.
Which is a damn shame, because cervical cancer, according to board-certified OB-GYN and female pelvic medicine specialist Antonio Pizarro, is “100 percent preventable.” As in, none of the 250,000 cases of women living with cervical cancer in the United States have to happen.
That’s not to say current cancer patients could have necessarily prevented their own cancers (I swear I’m not blaming the victim here!) — rather, the science, detection and prevention methods now available should be sufficient to eradicate the cancer going forward, so new and future cases don’t occur. Great news, right?
More: Cervical cancer death rates much higher in black women
Here’s the thing, though: There still seems to be a disconnect between patient education and prevention measures, and women still don’t seem to understand the critical importance of female pelvic health. In fact, a recent survey published by the Foundation for Women’s Cancer at Genentech found that women are more likely to have a regular hairstylist than OB-GYN and only a small majority of survey respondents thought a regular OB-GYN visit is essential to good health.
Sorry, ladies; that’s not good enough.
Women need to be visiting an OB-GYN or women’s health specialist regularly because it’s unlikely that other physicians will specifically bring up cervical cancer, Pap smears or other pelvic health issues. In fact, the survey indicates cervical cancer is one of the least likely topics to be discussed during a doctor’s appointment, and even Pap smears are only brought up 61 percent of the time.
Pizarro explains it this way, “I talk about cervical cancer all the time. All women’s health specialists and those who do preventive screening evaluations for women should discuss cervical cancer routinely with their patients, but I wouldn’t fault health care providers for not discussing cervical cancer if their specialty does not intersect with this disease.” See? If you’re a woman, and you care about women’s health issues, you need to be visiting a doctor with the expertise and knowledge to discuss and address women-specific health.
Cervical cancer detection and prevention
There are three things I hope you take from this article:
- You need to schedule a regular OB-GYN visit.
- Pap smears are specifically designed to detect cervical cancer and changes to the cervix that might indicate cervical cancer. They’re your early detection tool — make sure you’re getting a Pap test regularly!
- Human papillomavirus is the virus that leads to cervical cancer — the HPV vaccine is incredibly effective at preventing the spread of the virus and is the key to eradicating future cancers. If you’re still young enough to get the vaccine, get it. If you’re not, make sure you’re getting your children vaccinated.
Know that just because you go to an OB-GYN and have a pelvic exam doesn’t mean you’ve had a Pap done, “Unfortunately, many patients report that they underwent a Pap test even if only a pelvic exam was performed,” Pizarro says. As the patient, you need to confirm your doctor is performing the appropriate screenings — don’t just assume they’re covering all the bases.
Also, you need to know that boys and girls can be vaccinated against HPV. This is critical information because HPV is sickeningly widespread, and early vaccination is the tool we have to prevent future contractions. According to Pizarro, “The CDC reports that around 30 percent of American women ages 14 to 29 carry the high-risk form of HPV.”
That’s a lot of women, folks — 1 in 3.
Parents may want to avoid the HPV vaccine because it implies their children could become sexually active, but news flash — your children will become sexually active. According to Pizarro, “Most American children — 61 percent — will have become sexually active by age 18.” But even if your child practices safe sex or remains abstinent until later in life, getting them vaccinated now is a crucial step to protecting them and their future partners down the line.
The vaccine is available for girls and boys from ages 9 to 26, and it can prevent the contraction and spread of this damaging disease. While boys may not be subject to cervical cancer, they can carry and transmit the infection to the women they have sex with. By vaccinating yourself, your daughters and your sons, you’re taking an important step toward kicking cervical cancer’s ass.
Before you go, check out our slideshow below.
Originally published July 2016. Updated January 2017.