Cervical Cancer: Prevention and Early Detection Are Still the Best Cures
SIOUX FALLS (Feb. 1, 2014) – Once a common cause of cancer deaths among women, cervical cancer is not the health threat it once was in America. Why? Widespread screening catches it early – often before it even becomes cancer. And, research has discovered the main cause of cervical cancer, so it can be prevented in future generations.
While all this is good news, it’s just as important as ever to schedule annual exams, and communicate with your care provider about your need for regular screening tests, said Dr. Luis Rojas, Gynecologic Oncologist with Avera Medical Group Gynecologic Oncology.
“In Third World countries, where women don’t get Pap tests or follow up on abnormal Pap results, the incidence of cervical cancer is much higher,” Dr. Rojas said. “In America, we have better tools than ever before for preventing, detecting and treating cervical cancer.”
One advancement is the Pap test itself, which today yields a more accurate, trustworthy result. Research has also discovered that most cervical cancer is caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). Yet among the many types of HPV, only about 20 percent cause cancer. “This makes results of screening tests more predictive of the future,” Dr. Rojas said.
Until only recently, Pap tests were recommended each year as part of a well-woman exam. While annual visits to your health care provider are still important, the Pap test might not be part of every visit. Based on the latest research behind cervical cancer, the American Cancer Society now makes the following recommendations:
- Pap tests are not needed before age 21, regardless of when a woman becomes sexually active.
- Women between ages 21 and 29 should have a Pap test every three years, but HPV testing is not needed, unless a Pap test is abnormal. This is because women of this age often have a strong immune system, and are able to fight off HPV on their own, Dr. Rojas explained.
- Women between the ages of 30 and 65 should have a Pap test plus an HPV test every five years. Or, it is also considered OK to have a Pap test alone every three years.
- Women over age 65 who have always had normal Pap results no longer need to be screened. Women with a history of pre-cancerous cervical cells should be tested for at least 20 years after that diagnosis.
- Women who have had surgical removal of the uterus and cervix for reasons not related to cervical cancer, with no history of cervical cancer, do not need the Pap test.
Women who have been vaccinated against HPV should still follow screening recommendations for their age group. Some women, based on their health history, should have a different screening schedule for cervical cancer.
“In the past, we were over-screening for cervical cancer. Today, we understand more about the disease, and what age groups need what types of screening,” Dr. Rojas said.
Some women feel safer being screened every year. Yet there are others who totally ignore screening, and end up with cancer when it could have been caught at an earlier, more treatable or pre-cancerous stage. “The most common reason we find cervical cancer is that a woman hasn’t gone to the doctor for 10 years,” Dr. Rojas said.
If Pap or HPV test results are abnormal, doctors can perform more tests, including colposcopy and cervical biopsy, to study the cells and then treat any condition that exists before it becomes cancerous.
The biggest advancement in treating cervical cancer is the use of minimally invasive surgical techniques and robotics. “These new techniques result in fewer complications, less pain and a faster recovery,” Dr. Rojas said.
“For advanced cancer, new combinations of chemotherapy and radiation represent one of the biggest survival advantages in the history of cervical cancer care,” Dr. Rojas said.
There are also new surgical techniques which preserve childbearing function. For example, a radical trachelectomy leaves the uterus in place, so a woman can successfully achieve a pregnancy.
As with most cancers, the best cure is prevention. The HPV vaccine is recommended for girls and young women age 11-26, as well as males ages 11-21. Not smoking is another important factor in prevention. Smoking compromises local immunity and perpetuates infection of HPV, placing women at higher risk of developing cervical cancer.
To learn more visit www.AveraCancer.org