January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. Although talking about cancer can seem scary, it is important to know the signs, symptoms, and methods of prevention as there are many things you can do to protect yourself.
What exactly is cervical cancer?
The cervix is the lowest part of a woman’s uterus connecting it to the vagina. Cervical cancer occurs when the cells of the cervix grow abnormally and invade other tissues and organs.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) plays a significant role in the development cervical cancer by contributing to abnormal cell growth in the cervix for some women. Although HPV is very common, most women with the virus never develop cervical cancer; if they do, it is most likely caused by one of the high risk strains of the HPV virus.
Most women are between 20 and 30 years old when precancerous changes are first diagnosed. But, the average age of women diagnosed with cervical cancer is 50. The slow-growing nature of cervical cancer makes it easier to prevent, detect, and treat.
Preventing and monitoring for HPV prevents cervical cancer. Here are some steps you can take:
- HPV vaccine. There are over 100 types of HPV and this vaccine targets the two responsible for causing most cervical cancers. Ideally, you should receive it before becoming sexually active. It’s available beginning around age 11 or 12. Women can still get the vaccine up until they’re 26 and men can usually get it until age 21, depending on their specific situation.
- Pap smears. Your doctor takes a sample of cervical cells and looks for precancerous cells that could cause problems. Women age 21 should get a pap smear every three years until age 30, then every three to five years until age 65.
- HPV testing. This test is used in combination with a Pap smear to help detect cervical cancer. It is recommended women over age 30 get an HPV test every five years.
You can also reduce your risk for cervical cancer by practicing safe sex, working to maintain a healthy weight, eating lots of fruits and vegetables, and not smoking.
Symptoms and diagnosis
It can take several years for HPV to cause precancerous changes and even longer to develop noticeable symptoms. Some of the first symptoms are:
- Abnormal bleeding including bleeding after intercourse, between periods, after menopause, or periods that are heavier and longer than normal.
- Pain during intercourse
- Vaginal discharge and odor
- Pelvic pain
Additional symptoms may include:
- Difficulty, pain or blood when urinating
- Swollen legs
- Diarrhea, constipation, pain or bleeding with bowel movements
- Fatigue, unexplained weight loss and reduced appetite
- Swollen abdomen, nausea and vomiting
If abnormalities are indicated, your doctor might recommend a colposcopy. This procedure feels similar to a pap smear and takes five to ten minutes. Your doctor will use a special magnifying instrument to look for abnormal cells. A colposcopy can diagnose cervical cancer, genital warts, vaginal cancer and vulvar cancer and determines whether you may need further testing.
Most importantly, you should visit your gynecologist annually and make an appointment if anything seems unusual. Although it may seem like an uncomfortable topic to discuss, be honest about what’s going on so that your doctor is able to understand and help keep you healthy.
Dr. Kristin Kruse is an obstetrician-gynecologist at Fisher-Titus Women’s Health in Norwalk at 38 Executive Dr. She is board-certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology and has advanced training and certification in robotic-assisted surgery. For appointments, call 419-660-2980.