What is Cervical Health Awareness Month: January is the month the United States Congress has designated to raise cervical health awareness. More than 13,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer each year. The good news is that the disease is preventable with vaccination and proper screening. Cervical Health Awareness Month is a chance to raise awareness about how women can protect themselves from human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer.
The role of the cervix in reproductive health: The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. It is made up of very strong muscles and is an important part of a woman’s reproductive health. The main functions of the cervix are to allow the passage of blood from the uterus to the vagina during menstruation and to direct sperms into the uterus during intercourse. Just before ovulation occurs, the cervix produces “cervical mucus”, a stretchy viscous-like substance, which helps to promote sperm survival, thus leading to an increased likelihood of pregnancy. The cervix also helps to protect the embryo from infection during gestation and dilates to allow the passage of the fetus from the uterus to the vagina during childbirth.
What is Cervical Cancer: Cervical Cancer is a type of cancer that occurs when the cells of the cervix grow abnormally and invade other tissues and organs within the body. The risk of developing cervical cancer is highly associated with various strains of human papillomavirus (HPV). The HPV virus has been known to cause several other types of infections including genital warts, skin warts, and several other skin disorders. These disorders can cause several abnormalities in the cells around the cervix and can eventually lead to cervical cancer.
Risk Factors for Cervical Cancer:
- Infection with any strain of the HPV virus
- Early sexual activity: Having sex at an early can increase your risk of being infected with HPV
- Multiple sexual partners: The greater your number of sexual partners, the greater your chances of developing HPV
- Other STIs: Other sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, and HIV/AIDS can increase your risk of developing HPV
- Smoking: Smoking is associated with a type of cervical cancer known as “squamous cell cervical cancer”. The chemicals in cigarette smoke can also interact with cells of the cervix.
Symptoms of Cervical Cancer: The range and severity of symptoms associated with cervical cancer can vary based on age, fertility, and medical history. Symptoms of cervical cancer may include:
- Abnormal Vaginal bleeding (that is not due to menstruation)
- Abnormal vaginal discharge
- Pelvic Pain
- Pain (usually occurs when the cancer is advanced)
- Kidney Failure due to bowel or urinary tract obstruction (when the cancer is advanced)
When to seek medical care:
- Seek medical care if you are experiencing vaginal bleeding after menopause
- Heavy bleeding during your period or between periods warrants a medical evaluation
- Bleeding after sexual intercourse does occur in some women. However, it may be best to consult your healthcare provider if the bleeding happens frequently and repeatedly
- Go to a hospital emergency department if you experience vaginal bleeding that is associated with weakness, lightheadedness, or actual fainting.
What you can do:
- Vaccination: The CDC strongly recommends that all boys and girls get the HPV vaccine during the preteen years (at age 11 or 12), as the vaccine produces a stronger immune response during this period. The HPV vaccine is also available for all males and females through the age of 45. However, for those 15 and older, a stronger full three-dose series is needed.
- Testing: A pap smear is used to screen women for cervical cancer because the test can find cell changes in the cervix caused by cancer. HPV tests can find the virus and help healthcare providers know which women are at the highest risk for developing cervical cancer. Pap smears and HPV tests, either alone or in combination, are recommended for women over the age of 30. It is important to ask your healthcare provider about how often you should be screened, and which test may be right for you.