January is Cervical Health Awareness Month

Cervical Health Awareness Month is designated to raise awareness about how women can protect themselves from cervical cancer. According to 2015 projections, the American Cancer Society estimated about 12,900 new cases of invasive cervical cancer would be diagnosed in one year and about 4,100 women will die from cervical cancer. However, cervical cancer can be prevented through vaccination with human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, regular PAP tests, and avoiding high-risk behaviors, such as smoking and unsafe sexual practices.

HPV is a very common infection that spreads through sexual activity, and a major cause of cervical cancer. About 79 million Americans have HPV; however, many people with HPV do not know they are infected. Almost 50% of new infections occur in women aged 15-24 years. HPV vaccination is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to be given to adolescents starting at age 11 to 12 years old. HPV vaccine is now part of the routine childhood vaccination schedule for adolescents. When started in young males and females before they are sexually active HPV vaccination significantly lowers the risk of cervical cancer. Women should see their providers for regular health screening to include PAP tests. Recommendations are to get routine PAP tests starting at age 21. Regular PAP tests to screen the cervix for changes can prevent cancer or detect cancer in early stages when it is treatable. A PAP test can help detect abnormal cells before they turn into cancer. Most deaths from cervical cancer can be prevented through early detection and follow-up care.

Smoking, a high-risk behavior commonly associated with lung cancer, is also linked to cervical cancer. Women who smoke are twice as likely as non-smokers to get cervical cancer. Tobacco by-products have been found in the cervixes of women who smoke. These agents damage the DNA of cervix cells and may trigger the development of cervical cancer. The immune system is also less effective in fighting HPV infections in women who smoke. Other risk factors for cervical cancer include sexually transmitted co-infections acquired through unprotected sex, such as chlamydia and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), multiple pregnancies and family history of cancer.

“Given the evidence, women can arm themselves and their daughters against cervical cancer by making the best health decisions possible,” said Public Health Director, Daniel Stapleton. “Follow the guidelines for HPV vaccination, don’t smoke, avoid unprotected sex, know your family history, and get regular health examinations and PAP smears”, advised Mr. Stapleton. “Let’s take advantage of the evidence protecting women’s health. Taking simple steps to use what we know to stop a preventable cancer can have a significant impact on health and longevity,” he added.