For women of all ages, making the decision to visit your care provider for regular cervical health screening is one of the most important steps you can take to safeguard your health and greatly reduce your risk of cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer, the second-most common cancer diagnosed in women worldwide, is preventable and treatable when abnormalities in cervical cells are caught early through routine exams and screening, such as with a Pap test. Unfortunately, according to the American Cancer Society, the majority of women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer—whose abnormal cervical cells have progressed to cancerous—have either never had a Pap test or have not had one in recent years. The National Cervical Cancer Coalition (NCCC) states that more than 4,000 women die each year of cervical cancer that is caught too late for successful treatment.
But for women who receive regular Pap tests and human papillomavirus (HPV) screening, their cervical cancer risk falls substantially. When caught early, cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treatable cancers.
Certified Nurse-Midwives Tasha Parker, Helene Reusser and Tamara Rolan, who offer well-woman, pregnancy, delivery, and basic primary care at St. Luke’s Clinic – Nurse-Midwives and Women’s Health in Meridian, encourage women to visit their providers at least once a year for an exam and health assessment. Though the new screening guidelines recommend a Pap test every three to five years, Rolan urges women not to skip their annual visits.
“There is a misconception with the new guidelines that you don’t have to come back every year,” said Rolan. “Yes, you don’t need a Pap, but you still need to come back.” There are many factors that affect a woman’s cervical health, explained Parker, so it is essential that women practice “routine health maintenance.”
HPV is a common sexually-transmitted infection. Eighty percent of women will contract some form of HPV by the age of 50, though most types (there are over 100) are considered low risk and many clear up on their own within two years. A few low-risk types cause genital warts that require monitoring and treatment, but do not contribute to an increased cancer risk.
High-risk types of HPV, however, have been shown to contribute to abnormal cell changes and growth that, over time, progress to cancer. Early detection of these high-risk types of the virus as well as related abnormalities in cervical cells, through Pap tests and HPV screening, is vital to reducing the number of women who die of cervical cancer each year.
A vaccine that targets many types of HPV, including those that can lead to cervical and other types of cancers, is now available and recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics. The women’s health specialists at St. Luke’s highly recommend the vaccine in combination with regular screening.
“I don’t see any reason, if you can prevent it, why you’d want to not [vaccinate],” said Reusser. “But just because you have the vaccine doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get Pap smears, because not every strain of HPV is covered in those vaccines. Just the most common.”
St. Luke’s care providers, from pediatricians to obstetricians to oncologists, believe in the safety and efficacy of the preventive vaccine. “The vaccine is safe,” said Dr. Jerry Perez, a gynecologic oncologist with St. Luke’s Mountain States Tumor Institute (MSTI). “It lacks DNA so there is no way it can lead to HPV infection.”