January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month
According to the American Cancer Society, in 2018, more than 4,000 women were predicted to die from cervical cancer. Another 13,000 would be diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer, a cancer that is starting to spread to other parts of a woman’s body. Cervical cancer develops in the cervix, the narrow passage that forms the lower end of the uterus.
A Pap smear, also known as a Pap test, is the screening test for cervical cancer. The test was invented 50 years ago and widely offered to women in the U.S. starting in the 1970s. Before the Pap smear, cervical cancer was one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women. Because the Pap test detects cervical changes before cancer develops, doctors can treat it early, when it’s easier to cure.
“As a result of good screening, cervical cancer has gone from the number one cancer killer of American women to the thirteenth,” said Natasha Edwin, MD, a hematologist and oncologist at the ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center. “When we find cervical cancer early through a Pap test, the five-year survival rate can be 92 percent.”
Guidelines from the American Cancer Society state that all average-risked women should begin cervical cancer testing at age 21. Women aged 21 to 29, should have a Pap test every three years. Women ages 30-65 can get an HPV test every five years, or a Pap test every three years, or a combination every five years. It is best to develop a screening plan with your provider. Dr. Edwin said the testing is imperative, because cervical cancer is a silent cancer.
“When it’s localized, there are generally no obvious symptoms. We start to see symptoms only after it has spread,” she said.
Dr. Edwin strongly recommends that both boys and girls also get the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, before they become sexually active and thus exposed to the sexually-transmitted virus. More than 99 percent of cervical cancers are a result of HPV and the virus can cause other problems in both men and women. She emphasized that women who get the immunization should continue to get annual Pap tests, as there is not long-term data to recommend going without the screening test.
Women who have hysterectomies to remove their uterus, yet their cervix is kept intact, should continue to get annual Pap tests. Generally, women over age 65 no longer need Pap tests, but Dr. Edwin encourages women to have an individualized discussion with their doctors about when to stop screening for cervical cancer.
“Through Pap tests and the HPV vaccine, cervical cancer can be caught early or prevented. That’s a cancer success story for women everywhere,” said Dr. Edwin.