Cervical Health Awareness Month is a chance to raise awareness about how women can protect themselves from HPV (human papillomavirus) and cervical cancer. HPV is a very common infection that spreads through sexual activity. It’s also a major cause of cervical cancer.
About 79 million Americans currently have HPV and many of them don’t know they are infected. Each year, more than 11,000 women in the United States get cervical cancer.
In a story recently reported by the New York Post, it has been determined that more people die from cervical cancer than previously thought. “Black women in the US are dying from the disease at a rate 77 percent higher and white women at a rate 47 percent higher, according to the study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.” Women who had hysterectomies, which eliminated their risk of developing cervical cancer, were not previously accounted for and were included in the overall percentages.
What is HPV?
HPV is a group of more than 150 related viruses. HPV is named for the warts (papillomas) some HPV types can cause. Some other HPV types can lead to cancer. Men and women can get cancer caused by HPV infections. In women, HPV infection can also cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar HPV cancers. But there are vaccines that can prevent infection with the types of HPV that most commonly cause cancer.
How do people get HPV?
HPV is transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact and is so common that nearly all men and women get it at some point in their lives. HPV can be passed even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms. You can develop symptoms years after being infected, making it hard to know when you first became infected.
In most cases, HPV goes away on its own and does not cause any health problems. But when HPV does not go away, it can cause health problems like genital warts and cancer.
Genital warts usually appear as a small bump or groups of bumps in the genital area. They can be small or large, raised or flat, or shaped like a cauliflower. A healthcare provider can usually diagnose warts by looking at the genital area.
HPV cancers include cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, or anus. HPV infection can also cause cancer in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils.
The good news?
The HPV vaccine (brand name Gardasil) can prevent HPV. Parents should make sure their pre-teens get the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12. Teens and young adults should get the HPV vaccine if they didn’t get it as pre-teens. Women up to age 26 and men up to age 21 can still get the vaccine.
Cervical cancer screenings can help detect abnormal cells early, before they turn into cancer. Most deaths from cervical cancer could be prevented by regular Pap tests and follow-up care. Women should start getting regular Pap tests at age 21.
For the most part, there are no symptoms of beginning stage of cervical cancer. However, common symptoms may include:
- Vaginal bleeding: This includes bleeding between periods, after sexual intercourse or post-menopausal bleeding.
- Unusual vaginal discharge: A watery, pink or foul-smelling discharge is common.
- Pelvic pain: Pain during intercourse or at other times may be a sign of abnormal changes to the cervix, or less serious conditions.
All of these cervical cancer symptoms should be discussed with your doctor.
Cervical cancer may spread (metastasize) within the pelvis, to the lymph nodes or elsewhere in the body. Signs of advanced cervical cancer include:
- Weight loss
- Back pain
- Leg pain or swelling
- Leakage of urine or feces from the vagina
- Bone fractures
Cervical cancer can be preventable and is treatable if caught in time. Regular Pap test are crucial to your overall health.
Take time today to call your doctor and schedule an appointment for your annual check up (if you haven’t already.)