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Every year, about 14,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer—but the good news is that it is highly preventable. January is Cervical Health Awareness Month so a perfect time to talk about some of the things you just might not know about the disease.

Cervical cancer is most often caused by HPV (human papillomavirus)

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. It’s estimated that nearly everyone who’s sexually active will end up with at least one strain of HPV at some point. Most HPV cases are harmless and go away by themselves without treatment, but a few types can lead to cervical cancer in some women.

Cervical cancer takes years to develop

Abnormal cells from HPV can lead to cervical cancer, but the disease can be prevented if changes in the cervix are found early, and then treated. That's why a Pap screening test is important; it can find those abnormal cells before they become cancer. Pap screen testing should begin at age 21. Women should see their gynecologist every year and discuss when and how often you should have a Pap test. Experts base screening guidelines on your age and risk factors for cervical cancer.

In the early stages, cervical precancers or cervical cancers cause no pain or other symptoms

That's why it's vital for women to get regular annual pelvic exams and Pap tests to detect cancer in its earliest – and most treatable – stage. The first identifiable symptoms of cervical cancer are likely to include:

  • Irregular vaginal bleeding, such as after intercourse, between menstrual periods, or after menopause
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Unusual vaginal discharge
  • Pelvic pain
The HPV vaccine helps protect against the infection (and, thus, cervical cancer)

The vaccine doesn't protect against all HPV strains but has been shown to be almost 100 percent effective in preventing cervical cancer caused by the high-risk strains.

"The good news is that we are living in a time when there is a vaccine that can prevent cervical cancer," says Dr. Sharyn N. Lewin, gynecologic oncologist at Holy Name. "I recommend that all parents consider this potentially life-saving treatment and educate their children on the importance of not only preventing disease, but of maintaining health."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends both females and males get vaccinated up to age 26, before they have been exposed to the virus to prevent HPV and cervical cancer later in life. However, people up to age 45 can get vaccinated too. Although it may not be as effective as it is in those who get the shot when they are young, it can provide some protection against cervical cancer. Talk to your doctor for specific HPV vaccination recommendations for yourself or your child.

Holy Name's gynecology oncologists are here to answer your questions about cervical cancer prevention and treatment. Call 201-227-6200 to learn more.