It’s a rare person whose life hasn’t been touched by cancer, either directly or through someone they know. Years ago, cervical cancer was a leading cause of death among women. However, thanks to advances in both detection and treatment, cervical cancer is now preventable. January is cervical cancer awareness month, and as such, I thought it would be the perfect time to share these three simple steps you can take to prevent cervical cancer:
- Get vaccinated
Before becoming sexually active, everyone with a cervix should receive Gardasil 9, the vaccine against the human papillomavirus that causes cervical cancer. (If you haven’t gotten it yet and you’re 45 or younger, there’s still time to get vaccinated.)
- Boost your immune system
Eat nutritious meals, maintain a healthy weight, and don’t smoke.
- Practice safe sex (each and every time)
The other vitally important action is to see your women’s health provider regularly for a pap test (recommended every three years for ages 21 through 30 and every five years for ages 30 through 65). Pap tests can detect cervical cancer in the early stages, making it easier to treat.
Cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection that also causes genital warts as well as cancers of the vulva, anus, penis, and throat. Once women reach the age of 30, we can test for abnormal cells and screen for the presence of the HPV virus. There are more than 100 strains of HPV and most of them are harmless, but 14 have been identified to cause cancer. Interestingly, most people who contract the HPV strains, even one of the cancer-causing strains, can clear the virus from their system within a year or two with no treatment at all, and most pre-cancerous lesions resolve spontaneously.
Cervical cancer is a slow-growing and highly treatable cancer, even those who do not clear the virus often have excellent prognoses. It takes 15 to 20 years for cervical cancer to develop in women with normal immune systems and 5 to 10 years in women with weakened immune systems. Yet, without treatment, cervical cancer can be deadly, which is why pap tests are so important. These days, thanks to modern medicine, the biggest barrier in preventing cervical cancer is education.
There are a few increased risk factors for cervical cancer, including smoking, giving birth to more than three children, using birth control for more than five years, having several sexual partners, and having medical conditions that weaken the immune system. If these risk factors apply to you, it is even more important to get the vaccine, stay healthy, practice safe sex, and have a pap test on the schedule advised by your women’s health provider.
One of the best ways to stay healthy, whether it’s preventing cervical cancer or other medical conditions, is to check in with your doctor, certified nurse midwife, or nurse practitioner.
The most common time to get a pap test is during an annual well-woman exam. This is when I work with my patients to identify any physical and/or emotional problems before they progress. During these exams, I ask about how patients are sleeping, eating, exercising, and feeling. I ask whether they feel safe at home and whether they’re experiencing pain that interferes with intimacy with their partner. I ask about their menstrual cycle. I examine their bodies to make sure their reproductive organs are healthy. Once women are no longer of childbearing age, we begin discussing menopause and all the changes that come with it. Knowledge is power—I like to empower my patients.
If you haven’t seen your medical provider within the past year, consider making an appointment. We are here to help you stay healthy and enjoy life.
Carolyn Wyatt is a women’s health nurse practitioner at Care for Her, a department of MCHC Health Centers, a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.