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Guided by Her Gut

Posted by Maria B. Schiavone, MD, Gynecologic Oncologist at Holy Name Medical Center's Patricia Lynch Cancer Center on January 14, 2019

Maria Schiavone, Gynecologic Oncologist at Holy Name Medical Center's Patricia Lynch Cancer Center

She was young, healthy, and happy but something just wasn't right.

"And she knew it because she paid attention to her body," says Maria B. Schiavone, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at the Patricia Lynch Cancer Center at Holy Name.

Testing confirmed that Dr. Schiavone's patient, who was in her 30s, had cancer of the cervix.

Nearly 13,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, according to the American Cancer Society, but the symptoms can sometimes be vague or mirror other gynecological health concerns.

"This is why screening is so important," says Dr. Schiavone. Cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States. In recent years, screenings, including the Pap test, which finds cervical pre-cancer before it turns into cancer, and the human papillomavirus (HPV) test, which detects for the virus responsible for causing normal cells on the cervix to become abnormal, drastically reduced the number of deaths from this disease.

Here's What You Need to Know:

In August 2018, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) released updated recommendations for cervical cancer screening.

For Women 21 and Under: Because cervical cancer is most frequently diagnosed in women between the ages of 35 and 44, the USPSTF does not recommend screening for women under the age of 21.

For Women 21 to 29: It's now recommended that women in this age category have a Pap test every three years to detect any abnormal cell changes in the cervix, as opposed to once a year. The change is the result of research finding that some abnormal cell changes may resolve on their own over time.

For Women 30 to 65: The recommendation is Pap and HPV co-testing every five years OR Pap testing alone every three years, according to the USPSTF.

For Women 65+: If you have had regular Pap tests, you are at low risk and no longer need screenings. You do, however, need to continue with annual check-ups.

Even more importantly, every patient and her medical history is unique, so speak with your doctor to confirm what screening is appropriate for you.

"HPV causes almost all cervical cancers," says Dr. Schiavone. And while some HPV strains resolve on their own, others can lead to cancer. "Which is why having your children, both boys and girls, vaccinated to protect against the infection is so very important."

In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved three vaccines to prevent HPV in minors and people up to the age of 26. "Recently, the FDA announced something very exciting; the HPV vaccine is now approved for men and women between the ages of 27 and 45," says Dr. Schiavone.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV is so common, nearly all sexually active men and women will get the virus at some point in their lives. The vaccine protects against nine strains, including those most likely to cause cancers.

"The availability of the HPV vaccine, and advances in screening guidelines, which have been well established based on the latest data, will continue to help reduce the cases of cervical cancer in this country," says Dr. Schiavone, who says it also doesn't hurt to listen to your body.

"Unusual vaginal bleeding or discharge, post-coital bleeding, abdominal pain, these can all be signs something is wrong, so don't ignore them," she says.

Thankfully, Dr. Schiavone's young patient followed her gut instinct and didn't hesitate to make an appointment after noticing some abnormal bleeding. "Because of this, the cancer was found early, it was confined to the cervix, and we were able to treat her with great success," she concludes.

Cervical cancer is preventable. To schedule a screening and HPV vaccines with a Holy Name gynecologist, visit: Holy Name gynecologist.