Cervical cancer is the third most common form of gynecologic cancer—and ranks third in gynecologic cancer deaths—in the U.S., but the good news is that modern screening, prevention and treatment efforts are giving women a better chance than ever to prevent the disease.
Over the last 50 years, modern methods have resulted in a 75 percent drop in incidence and deaths from cervical cancer in developed.
“Screening and prevention programs really have made a difference,” said Dana Edwards, MD, an OB/GYN physician at Billings Clinic West End. “Early cervical cancer is often without symptoms, and this emphasizes why these screenings and prevention efforts are so, so important.”
This starts with getting vaccinated for human papilloma (HPV) virus. According to the American Cancer Society, HPV is a common virus which most people’s bodies fight off on their own. However, if that infection doesn’t go away it can eventually cause cervical cancer in women.
National Cervical Health Awareness Month
While January is National Cervical Health Awareness Month and provides an opportunity to raise awareness and start discussions about cervical health and cervical cancer, medical providers note that prevention efforts are year-round and should be a regular part of discussions with your regular care provider.
“Partnering with your doctor for these simple steps can help you live a long and healthy life,” Edwards said. “HPV can be detected in 99.7 percent of all cervical cancers. Many women in their reproductive years see their Primary Care Provider or OB/GYN for routine health care, contraceptive management or pregnancy care. This is the perfect opportunity to educate patients on cervical cancer prevention and screening for detection of early, treatable disease.
Billings Clinic gynecologic oncologist Megan Petersen, MD, treats patients who have developed cervical cancer and said the absolute best treatment is prevention. The HPV vaccine is recommended for women and men between the ages of 9 and 26. Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved its use in some women up to the age of 45. Avoiding smoking, vaping, tobacco use and other similar behaviors that have ill health effects, and scheduling regular Pap smears are important.
“Even if it always comes back negative, getting that exam is still important,” Petersen said. “There’s no cure for HPV and no treatment. If you have it, the next best thing is to make sure it doesn’t develop into something more serious.”
A woman should have her first Pap smear at age 21 and then, based on results and risk factors, can she should repeat it every three to five years.
Early Detection is Key
If cervical cancer develops, early detection saves lives. Women should seek medical advice for common symptoms including abnormal bleeding, bleeding or pelvic pain after sex and abnormal discharge. However, Petersen notes it can take as long as 10 years after a first abnormal Pap smear to form into cancer, meaning it is often first noticed in women in their 40s and 50s.
“Early stage cervical cancer is very treatable and curable,” Petersen said. Treatment often begins with surgical options while later stage cancer treatments can include chemotherapy and radiation. “Don’t delay going to your doctor,” Petersen said. “The earlier you can the better. That’s the best way to prevent it.”
Billings Clinic Can Help
The compassionate team of women’s health experts at the Billings Clinic is dedicated to treating women through all stages of life. From routine visits to complex conditions, the medical professionals provide top-level care. This includes OB/GYN and gynecologic oncology physicians who can help provide prevention and treatment options, and more information on, for cervical cancer.
For more information on Billings Clinic women’s health services, please call 406-238-2500 or visit www.billingsclinic.com/women.
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