Vaccines, screenings help protect against cervical cancer

  • A vaccine protects against most types of HPV infections that cause cervical cancer, as well as other types of cancers in both men and women. Courtesy photo/Pixabay

For the Recorder
Published: 1/4/2019 1:12:49 PM

Did you know January is Cervical Health Awareness Month?

The designation has been promoted by the American Social Health Association and the National Cervical Cancer Coalition to encourage women to get screened for cervical cancer as screening and better treatments have helped reduce the number of deaths from this type of cancer over the last four decades.

Screening with a Pap test looks for any changes in the cervix — which forms the lower end of the uterus — that could become cancerous, and is recommended starting at age 21. There is also an HPV (human papillomavirus) DNA test that can be done on collected cells to look only for the types of HPV viral infections that cause cervical cancer.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), rates of cervical cancer are highest among black and Hispanic women and highest among those in their mid-30s and mid-40s.

The five-year survival rate of 67 percent for this type of cancer among women is lower than for a number of other cancers. However, the survival rate for invasive cervical cancer rises to 92 percent if the cancer is detected at an early stage.

It is estimated that about 46 percent of women with cervical cancer are diagnosed at an early stage.

There is also a vaccine that protects against most types of HPV infections that cause cervical cancer, as well as other types of cancers in both men and women. The HPV vaccine is generally given to boys and girls at the age of 11 or 12, in two shots six to 12 months apart. It is given in three shots to children older than 14, and is recommended for young women and men through age 26.

The vaccine protects against the nine types of HPV associated with 90 percent of cervical and vulvar cancer, and genital warts. It is not a substitute for the Pap test that should continue, based on discussions with one’s health care provider, through age 65 for most women.

There are a number of procedures that can be done to remove precancerous cells in the cervix. If cervical cancer or pre-cancer, also known as dysplasia, is suspected as a result of an abnormal Pap smear, a colposcopic examination can be done to check further and take tissue for a biopsy. A colposcopy is an office-based examination where the cervix is closely examined under magnification to identify areas of precancer or cancer.

If cancer is found, further testing can be done to stage the cancer, with treatment options being dependent on how far the cancer advanced. Treatment may include surgery, radiation with low-dose chemotherapy, or chemotherapy alone.

Recently, the use of laparoscopic or robotic-assisted procedures for patients undergoing radical hysterectomy for early cervical cancer has been reconsidered by some surgeons and medical centers.

One clinical trial involving 631 women and 33 hospitals showed higher rates of disease recurrence in under three years, as well as higher mortality rates among such patients undergoing this minimally invasive approach of removing the uterus through the vagina rather than open abdominal surgery for removal of the cervix, uterus, part of the vagina and related lymph nodes.

Women with early stage cervical cancer are advised to discuss surgical options and risks with their health care providers.

Lifestyle behaviors that may help to lower the risk for cervical cancer, according to the CDC, include not smoking, as toxins in cigarette smoking can weaken the immune system, using condoms during sex and limiting sexual partners.

Dr. Tashanna Myers is a gynecologic oncologist with the Baystate Regional Cancer Program.


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