Cervical Cancer Screening Can Save Your Life

Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of cancer death for women in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Although the number of deaths from the disease has drastically decreased over the past 40 years, it is estimated that 12,360 new cases of cervical cancer were diagnosed in the U.S. last year, and about 4,000 women died from the disease. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 50 percent of new cases of cervical cancer occur among women who never or rarely get screened.

These statistics suggest that there is more work to be done to combat the disease. January is  Cervical Health Awareness Month, which is a good time to educate women about the risk factors and symptoms of cervical cancer and the importance of screening for the disease.

RAccording to the ACS, cervical cancer is most common in women between the ages of 21 and 50. Additional risk factors for cervical cancer include smoking, a family history of the disease, a weakened immune system, a previous abnormal Pap test, multiple sexual partners, history of human papillomavirus (HPV) and long-term use of contraceptive pills, says  Patricia Feito, M.D., a Baptist Health Primary Care family medicine doctor.

Screening Tests

Screening for cervical cancer includes the Pap test, also known as the Pap smear, and the HPV test. The Pap test is one of the most reliable and effective cancer screening tests available. It is used to detect signs of precancerous cells, which are changes in the cervix that could develop into cervical cancer if not properly treated. The HPV is a virus that can cause cells in the cervix to change. The National Institutes of Health reports that almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by certain types of HPV.

Screening Guidelines

The American Cancer Society recommends these screening guidelines for most women:

  • Women between the ages of 21 and 29 should have a Pap test every three years.
  • Women between the ages of 30 and 65 can choose to have the Pap test every three years, or the Pap test and HPV test every five years. Both tests can be performed by your doctor at the same time. If your test results are normal, your chance of getting cervical cancer in the next few years is very low. But this doesn’t mean you should forgo annual visits to your primary care physician, says Dr. Feito.
  • Women over age 65 who have had regular cervical cancer testing with normal results do not need to be tested for cervical cancer. Women with a history of cervical pre-cancer should continue to be tested for at least 20 years after that diagnosis, even if testing continues past age 65.
  • A woman who has had her uterus and cervix removed for reasons not related to cervical cancer and who has no history of cervical cancer or serious pre-cancer does not need to be tested.
  • A woman who has received the HPV vaccination should still follow the screening recommendations for her age group.

“You should partner with your doctor to determine a cervical cancer screening schedule based on your age, health and other risk factors,” Dr. Feito said.  “And if your doctor says that you can wait three or five years until your next screening, you should still see your doctor annually for a checkup.”

Signs and Symptoms

The fact that cervical cancer rarely presents any symptoms in its early stages highlights the importance of regular screening for the disease. Doctors have referred to this cancer as the “silent killer” because spotting it early can be difficult.

In its later stages when the cancer becomes more invasive, symptoms can include abnormal bleeding after sexual intercourse or during menopause, heavy or prolonged periods, unusual discharge, pain during sexual intercourse, pelvic pressure and lower back pain, says Dr. Feito.

Her important message to women:

  • Listen to your body, and don’t ignore signs or symptoms that are unusual for you.
  • Get screened for cervical cancer — it could save your life.



Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 13 hospitals, more than 23,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 100 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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