To help prevent cervical cancer, best practices include a Pap test, pelvic exam, and the HPV vaccination.

More than thirty years ago, cervical cancer was one of the most common causes of cancer death in women. Today that rate has declined by more than 50%, and screenings deserve large credit. Screenings are what help to find changes in the cervix before cancer develops. Screenings are also what help to find cancer in its early stages - the most curable stage.

However, there’s still room for improvement. Though many women are getting screened for cervical cancer, they’re not receiving vaccination against its only known cause. According to the National Care Institute, virtually all cases of cervical cancer are caused by Human Papilloma Viruses (HPV). Yet nationwide today, 40% of adolescent girls and 66% of women aged 19-26, remain fully unvaccinated.

To help prevent cervical cancer, best practices include a Pap test, pelvic exam, and the HPV vaccination. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a woman’s first Pap test should begin at age 21, and continue every three years thereafter. A pelvic exam is recommended annually beginning at age 18, or younger if you are sexually active. The HPV vaccination is recommended beginning at 11 years of age for both boys and girls, with a three-dose series of the vaccine. (Young women can receive an HPV vaccine through age 26; young men through age 21.)

Symptoms

Women with early cervical cancer typically have no symptoms. It is not until the cancer becomes invasive, growing into nearby tissues, they can begin. Most common symptoms are:

Abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as bleeding after vaginal intercourse, bleeding after menopause, bleeding and spotting between periods, and having (menstrual) periods that are longer or heavier than usual. Bleeding after douching or after a pelvic exam may also occur. Unusual discharge from the vagina − the discharge may contain some blood and may occur between your periods or after menopause. Pain during intercourse.

Risk factors

There are many risk factors associated with the disease. The most significant is infection by HPV, but others include: 

STDs. Sexually transmitted diseases like HPV, HIV, and chlamydia can increase your risk for cervical cancer. To reduce risk of HPV infection, get vaccinated. To reduce risk of STDs including HPV, use a condom and limit number of sexual partners. Condom use has been associated with a lower rate of cervical cancer. Smoking. Smoking exposes a person to many cancer-causing chemicals. Women who smoke are twice as likely as non-smokers to get cervical cancer. Diet. Women whose diets are low in fruits and vegetables, or are overweight, may be at increased risk. Genetics. Cervical cancer can run in some families. If your sister or mother has had cervical cancer, your chances of developing the disease are 2-3 times higher than if no one in your family had it. Age. Women who experience their first full-term pregnancy, younger than age 17, are nearly 2 times more likely to get cervical cancer later in life than women who waited until they were 25 years or older.

Each year, another 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and 4,000 will die from the disease. Don’t wait for symptoms to appear. If you’re a woman who is sexually active or under the age of 27, reduce your risks for cervical cancer - get screened and get vaccinated.

For HPV immunization services, call the Ottawa County Health Department at 918-540-2481.

For information on Oklahoma’s cervical cancer treatment program, visit www.okhca.org. The program is available at no cost for those who meet income guidelines.

Sean Bridges is Health Educator for the Delaware and Ottawa County Health Departments.