Cervical Cancer Awareness Month: Women urged to get routine screenings

January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and health experts are encouraging women to understand the importance of routine screenings and vaccinations that can help prevent the disease and save lives.

In 2019, an estimated 13,000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer and about 4,250 died from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.

“Women need to know that cervical cancer is almost always preventable,” said Dr. Jennifer Enman, obstetrician/gynecologist with Aspirus Stevens Point Clinic and Aspirus Riverview Clinic in Wisconsin Rapids.

There are two highly effective ways to prevent cervical cancer. “The development of cervical cancer is rare in women who are regularly screened for it,” said Dr. Enman. “In addition, there's a vaccine that protects against the most common cause of cervical cancer - the human papillomavirus (HPV).”

Stopping cancer with screening

Most cervical cancers start with precancerous changes that gradually turn into cancer. Screening can find these abnormal changes, which doctors can then treat. That stops cancer from ever developing.

Screening always includes the Pap test and, for some women, the HPV test. Both tests are simple and fast and consist of sample cells from the cervix. The Pap test looks for cell changes and abnormal cells, while the HPV test looks for the virus that causes cell changes.

Be sure to ask your doctor what the best screening schedule is for you. But in the meantime, here's what the American Cancer Society advises for most women:

  • Starting at 21 and through age 29, get a Pap test every three years.
  • Starting at age 30, you have a choice. Either get a Pap test every three years or get both a Pap test and an HPV test every five years.

“It's OK to stop testing if you're older than 65 and have had normal Pap test results for many years,” Dr. Enman said. “It's also OK to stop if you've had a total hysterectomy (both your uterus and cervix have been removed) for a noncancerous condition like fibroids. However, you should always talk with your provider, so it is a combined decision.”

Taking a shot at cancer

There are more than 200 types of HPV. But two - both spread through sexual contact - cause approximately 70 percent of cervical cancers. The HPV vaccine targets those two types.

Even so, the vaccine cannot treat an HPV infection that has already developed, but it can prevent transmission of strains you haven’t already been infected with. That is why it's best for people to get the shot before they become sexually active. Vaccination should start at age 11 or 12 for both boys and girls; but men and women 26 and younger can still be vaccinated. Vaccination is not recommended for everyone older than age 26. However, some adults age 27-45 may decide to get the HPV vaccine based on discussion with their provider, if they did not get adequately vaccinated when they were younger. The vaccine can protect against several other cancers, including anal, throat and penile cancer. If vaccination is not an option, condoms can also help protect transmission of HPV.

To schedule an appointment with an Aspirus OB/GYN near you, call the Aspirus Customer Contact Center at 800-847-4707. To learn more about the OB/GYN services offered by Aspirus, visit aspirus.org/obstetrics-gynecology