Experts Advise Continued Screenings for Cervical Cancer
3 min. read
Death rates from cancer continue to decline in the U.S., according to a new report from the American Cancer Society (ACS) that shows a 33 percent decrease since 1991. The most notable positive trend was a 65 percent reduction in cervical cancer rates in women aged 20-24 from 2012 through 2019 – a reduction cancer experts attribute to the introduction of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine in 2006.
This sharp decrease in cervical cancer rates among women in their early 20s “is extremely exciting because this is the first group of women to receive the HPV vaccine,” says Rebecca Siegel, senior scientific director, surveillance research at ACS and lead author of the report. She says it likely foreshadows “steep reductions in the burden of cervical cancer and other HPV-associated cancers,” the majority of which occur in women.
Even with this bit of good news, local cancer specialists with Baptist Health Cancer Care continue to stress the importance of screenings and early detection. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), roughly 13,000 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer this year, and about 4,000 will die from the disease.
John Paul Diaz, M.D., chief of gynecologic oncology at Baptist Health Miami Cancer Institute
“Cervical cancer is a preventable disease. It’s one of the few cancers we can eradicate,” says John Paul Diaz, M.D., chief of gynecologic oncology at Baptist Health Miami Cancer Institute. “With the screening programs available to women today – utilizing Pap smears and HPV testing in combination with the HPV vaccine – we should be able to completely eliminate this disease here in the United States.”
The HPV virus is one of the greatest risk factors for cervical cancer, according to Dr. Diaz, causing an estimated 93 percent of all cervical cancers diagnosed in the U.S. He says that the introduction of the HPV vaccine has led to a steady decrease in early-stage cervical cancer over the past 16 years.
When to start screening
The American College of Obstetrics & Gynecology (ACOG) encourages women to begin yearly cervical cancer screenings at age 21, and earlier for women younger than 21 who are infected with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).
Women who rely on HPV testing without including an annual Pap smear do so at their own risk, cautions Dr. Diaz. “Screening for just HPV and not including a Pap smear can sometimes produce a false negative when the patient actually does have cancer,” he says. “This is especially true among patients with late-stage tumors, which are also the most difficult to treat.”
Thomas Morrissey, M.D., director of gynecologic oncology at Lynn Cancer Institute in Boca Raton, also part of Baptist Health Cancer Care, says early-stage cervical cancer has few warning signs, which is why it’s especially important for women to have regular check-ups and screenings.
Thomas Morrissey, M.D., director of gynecologic oncology at Lynn Cancer Institute in Boca Raton
“With cervical cancer, we tend to see it develop in midlife and most often in women between the ages of 35 and 44,” says Dr. Morrissey. He worries that women may be getting lax about their screenings. “In the U.S. most cases of advanced cervical cancer are seen in patients who have not had a pap smear or a cervical cancer screening for at least five years,” Dr. Morrissey says.
Dr. Morrissey advises that women check with their gynecologist if they have any of the following symptoms:
· Vaginal bleeding including bleeding after intercourse
· Unusual vaginal discharge
· Pelvic pain or pain during intercourse
For women without health insurance coverage or easy access, Dr. Morrissey advises contacting their county’s health department for assistance in obtaining cancer screening tests like pap smears, mammograms and colon cancer screenings.
Another great resource for women, says Dr. Morrissey, is The Promise Fund of Florida. “It’s an incredible organization which helps patients obtain breast and cervical cancer screenings and also helps patients with those cancers through their cancer treatments,” he says.
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