Column: Tips to prevent, detect cervical cancer

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Commentary by Jayde Wall

Did you know that more than 14,000 women are diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer each year? Cervical cancer is a gynecologic cancer of the female reproductive tract, specifically the cervix. January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, so I’d like to share some tips on how to prevent it and information on screenings.

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Typically, cervical cancer occurs most often in women over age 30. Long-lasting infections of human papillomavirus will cause cervical cancer. At least half of sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lives, but few of them will get cervical cancer.

How can you prevent cervical cancer?

The first thing you can do to protect yourself from cervical cancer is to get the HPV vaccine. You can get the vaccine starting as early as age 9, but it is recommended for preteens ages 11 and 12. The HPV vaccine is also recommended for adults through age 26 if they are not vaccinated. It is also not recommended for everyone older than 26. Some other tips to prevent cervical cancer are to use a condom during sex so you do not contract HPV, and to limit your number of sexual partners.

Who should be screened for cervical cancer?

There are two different types of screening for cervical cancer. The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancers, cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately. The HPV test looks for the virus (human papillomavirus) that can cause these cell changes. Both tests can be done in a doctor’s office or a clinic. You should begin getting tested for cervical cancer at age 21.

If your pap test is normal, your doctor will tell you to come back in three years. You can continue testing that often until you are 29, but from ages 30 to 65, you can do a Pap test only, an HPV test only, or you can do both Pap and HPV tests. If you do only a Pap test, you can wait another three years until your next screening. If you do an HPV test, you can wait another five years until your next screening. If you do both Pap and HPV, you can wait another 5 years until your next screening. Getting test results can take as long as three weeks.

If you have any questions or if you or a loved one might have cervical cancer, please talk to a doctor immediately. Learn more at iuhealth.org/cancer.

Jayde Wall is a gynecologic oncology nurse practitioner at the IU Health Joe & Shelly Schwarz Cancer Center in Carmel.

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