Cervical cancer is the third most common gynecologic cancer diagnosed among US women, with over 12,000 new cases each year. Until cervical cancer reaches an advanced stage, many women do not show symptoms. The most common symptoms are irregular vaginal bleeding or discharge. The best way to prevent cervical cancer is to receive routine Pap tests. The most common reason patients present with advanced-stage cancer is due to the lack of routine screening.
Most cervical cancer is caused by a virus called the human papillomavirus, or HPV. You can get HPV by having sexual contact with someone who has it. In recent years, a vaccine has become available that is nearly 100% effective in guarding against the high risk strains of HPV. For males, the vaccine is recommended between the ages of 11 and 21. For girls, it is recommended between the ages of 9 and 26.
If found early, cervical cancer is potentially curable, and may be prevented by treating the condition (cervical dysplasia) that can lead to it. Cervical dysplasia is the cellular changes that occur prior to the onset of cervical cancer. Depending upon the severity of dysplasia, there are several treatment options available. Advanced dysplasia usually involves removal of a small portion of the cervix. Minor dysplasia is usually followed closely by your doctor because it will often resolve itself after the body suppresses the virus.
It is important for patients who have been treated for dysplasia to maintain routine follow-up, even if Pap tests return to normal, the condition can reoccur. Cervical screening can be scheduled with a gynecologist at the time of your annual visit. Current guidelines recommend Pap testing with an HPV co-test every 3 years for women ages 21-29, and every 5 years for women age 30+. Even if it is not time for your Pap test, it is important to see your doctor every year for an annual exam for general wellness, especially if you are sexually active.
Did You Know
- In 2012 eight million US women age 21 to 65 had not been screened for cervical cancer.
- More than half of cervical cancer cases occur among women who’ve never or rarely been screened.
- Studies show that the use of the HPV vaccine and cervical cancer screening combined could prevent 93% of new cervical cancer cases.
*Source: Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
Risk of Ovarian Cancer Increases with Age
Sadly, ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. It accounts for nearly 3% of all cancers among women and over 22,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year. Risk for ovarian cancer does increase with age, especially following menopause. The peak age incidence is approximately age 60. Most women go through menopause around age 52. A family history of any of the following cancers is a very important risk factor:
- Epithelial ovarian cancer
- Fallopian tube cancer
- Peritoneal cancer
- Premenopausal breast cancer
- Male breast cancer
A personal history of premenopausal breast cancer is another important risk factor. Some families affected by both colon and endometrial cancer will have an increased risk. Infertility and not bearing children are also risk factors. If you have a family history of breast, ovarian, or colon cancer, talk with your doctor about genetic screening. Historically, ovarian cancer was called the “silent killer.” That’s because symptoms were not thought to develop until the chance of cure was poor. Recent studies, though, have shown this term is not accurate. The following symptoms are much more likely to occur in women with ovarian cancer than women in the general population:
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- Urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency)
Women with ovarian cancer report that symptoms are persistent and represent a change from normal for their bodies. The frequency and/or number of symptoms are a key factor in the diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Women who have these symptoms almost daily for more than 2-3 weeks should see their doctor, preferably a gynecologist. Several studies show that even early stage ovarian cancer can produce these symptoms. Prompt medical evaluation may lead to detection at the earliest possible stage. And early stage is associated with an improved prognosis.