Monday, January 7, 2013

Cervical Cancer Can Be Prevented

Ten out of twelve months of the year feature at least one kind of cancer awareness (July and August are the exceptions). January starts us out with Cervical cancer, which has a very shiny silver lining - it is a cancer that is now largely preventable with a simple vaccine. Thanks to the thousands of patients who have participated in clinical trials in the past, your daughters and grand-daughters can reduce their risk of acquiring the virus that causes approximately 70% of cervical cancers, as well as other forms of cancer.

What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer occurs in the cells of the cervix - the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Symptoms don't usually appear until abnormal cells become cancerous and invade nearby tissue. Abnormal vaginal bleeding is the most common symptom, including spotting between regular menstrual periods or after sexual intercourse or a pelvic exam. Other possible signs are heavier-than-usual menstrual bleeding, unusual pelvic pain, increased vaginal discharge and bleeding after menopause.

Are there symptoms?
Early-stage cervical cancer usually produces no signs or symptoms, making it important to get regular screenings to be able to catch any abnormalities early when the disease is more easily treated. The current recommendation is for every woman over the age of 21 to get a Pap screening every two years. After age 30, if you've had a normal result for three years in a row, you can ask your doctor about spacing them out to every three years. Beyond age 65, discuss your need for continued testing with your doctor.

How can I prevent cervical cancer? 
The Human Papillomaviruses (HPV) are a group of more than 150 related viruses. They get their name because certain types may cause warts, or papillomas, which are non-cancerous growths. Persistent infections with high-risk HPVs are the primary cause of cervical and anal cancers. Genital HPV infection also causes some cancers of the vulva, vagina, and penis, as well as some cancers of the oropharynx (the middle part of the throat, including the soft palate, base of the tongue and tonsils.)

The FDA has approved two vaccines to prevent HPV infection - Gardasil® and Cervarix®. Both vaccines are highly effective in preventing infections with the strains of HPV most-often linked to cervical cancers in women. Garadsil also prevents infection with the types which cause 90% of genital warts, a non-cancerous sexually transmitted infection. We shared more information about this vaccine in another blog post last year.

The American Cancer Society estimated there would be over 12,000 new cases of invasive cervical cancer diagnosed last year. Having a regular pap test has been a crucial tool in reducing the number of cases since that recommendation was put in place in the 1970s, and the HPV vaccine is expected to reduce numbers even more dramatically in the future.

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