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Question: What are the guidelines for prevention and detection of cervical cancer?

January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month and represents a great opportunity to remind everyone of the importance of its prevention. In the United States, over 300,000 women a year are diagnosed with pre-cancer cervix lesions, over 13,000 women a year are diagnosed with cervix cancer and 4,200 women die from this disease. We have made great strides since the introduction of the PAP smear in the 1950s, and cervical cancer has declined from the No. 1 cause of cancer death in women. Women should be aware that as our knowledge about cervical cancer grows, guidelines for the type and timing of testing and management are actively evolving. Women should speak with their doctor about their PAP testing and result management, as guidelines have been updated as recently as Fall 2020.

Now, in addition to PAP smears, we have the ability to make an even greater impact on preventing cervix cancer with a vaccine against Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), the virus that causes this cancer. HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact, especially sexual contact. The virus is very common; it is estimated that 80% of sexually active adults will acquire HPV before age 50. Most people have no symptoms, but in approximately 10-20% of women the virus persists and can potentially develop into precancer and ultimately cervix cancer. It is important to know that HPV is associated with many types of cancer – not just cervix-- and affects both men and women. For example, HPV is also associated with vaginal, vulva, penis and anal cancers, as well as some types of oral/mouth cancers such as of the tongue or tonsil.

The HPV vaccine can prevent more than 90% of cancers caused by HPV. Vaccination is most effective before exposure through sexual activity, so vaccination is recommended for girls and boys at the age of 11–12 years as part of their routine adolescent immunizations. If these target dates are missed, it is recommended that unvaccinated women up to age 26 should still receive the vaccine. As a final update, the HPV vaccine has recently been licensed in the United States for patients up to age 45. So, if you are aged 27–45 and previously unvaccinated, you can discuss with your physician whether the HPV vaccine might still be beneficial for you, in your specific circumstances.

As we begin Cervical Cancer awareness month, let’s celebrate that we now have the ability to wipe out a gynecologic cancer! This can only happen if the HPV vaccine is widely used, and if parents are educated about the importance of the vaccine for their child’s long-term health. Currently, only 42% of our children receive this vaccine. Hopefully over time, awareness will lead to elimination of deaths from this preventable cancer. Don’t take the chance for yourself or your children; prevention is possible. To find out more about the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine, ask your doctor or contact our Nurse Navigators at Mission Hope with your questions at 805-219-HOPE (4673).

HAVE A QUESTION? This weekly column produced by Marian Cancer Care invites you to submit your questions to “Your Cancer Answers” at the following email address mariancancercare@dignityhealth.org

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