Even though the number of cervical cancer cases has been dropping for the last 40 years, Latina and African American women have the highest rates of any group in the United States. And cervical cancer kills Latinas and African American women at a much higher rate than it does Caucasian women.
Unlike diseases that are genetic or inherited, the high rates of cervical cancer in our communities are due to behavior – not getting routine Pap smears and not knowing about HPV and its highly effective vaccination.
Our prescription for fighting cervical cancer? Knowledge! Read on to learn about how women of every age can protect themselves and reduce their risks.
What is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer happens when an abnormal group of cells starts growing in the lining of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus (where a baby grows during pregnancy). These are cells that start out normal but become pre-cancerous. In some women, these pre-cancerous cells go away on their own. In other women, these cells will turn into cervical cancer over several years – and occasionally, these cells turn into cancer in less than a year. The most common type of cervical cancer is called squamous cell carcinomas, though there are other types of cancer than can develop in the cervix.
Cervical cancer symptoms include abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge, or pain during sex. Unfortunately, by the time symptoms occur, it’s likely that that cancer has already spread to nearby tissues.
When cervical cancer is caught early and treated, the outcome is very good, with a survival rate as high as 93% — that is, 93% of women who find cervical cancer at the earliest stages are still alive five years after their diagnosis or start of treatment. However, the longer cancer is left undetected and untreated the further it can spread through the body—and become more deadly.
What Causes Cervical Cancer?
HPV, or human papillomavirus doesn’t cause cervical cancer 100% of the time, but an HPV infection is the biggest risk factor for getting it.
HPV is spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who is already infected with the virus. Even if the infected person has no signs or symptoms, they can still pass along HPV to a sex partner. In some cases, HPV goes away on its own and doesn’t cause health problems however, it’s best to take steps to avoid infection.
The best protection against it is the HPV vaccine: studies showed that the vaccine is nearly 100% effective in protecting against cervical precancer. The CDC recommends starting the vaccination at age 11 or 12. Women can also get it up to age 26. Check with your regular doctor for additional information.
Preventing Cervical Cancer
In addition to the getting the HPV vaccine, your best defense is seeing your doctor or gynecologist regularly. The Pap smear is the first way doctors look for the abnormal cells. Women age 21 – 65 should receive Pap smears every three years, or women age 30-65 can be tested every 5 years if an HPV test is done at the same time as the Pap smear. Your doctor will give you the tests that are right for you.
As with many cancers, you may have inherited an increased risk from your family. There are still things you can do to protect yourself and cut your risks. Here are ways you can act immediately:
- Stop smoking
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Practice safe sex – since some sexually transmitted diseases may increase your risk or leave you vulnerable
How to Make Your Gynecologist Screenings More Comfortable
You can empower yourself to have a comfortable and productive visit with your gynecologist by taking some of the following steps:
- Ask to see a female doctor if you’re not comfortable with a male doctor.
- Bring a friend or relative with you in the exam room.
- Don’t be afraid to stop the exam and ask questions.
- Know that whatever is happening with your body is normal and natural – and your doctor has seen it all before.
- Understand that your visit may be a little uncomfortable, but it should never be painful. If, at any time during the exam, you feel actual pain, tell your doctor.
If you don’t have a regular gynecologist or you’d like to find someone who speaks your language, AltaMed is here for you. Use our Find a Doctor tool to search based on your preferences. You can choose the gender you’re most comfortable with, preferred language, and the city – you’ll find great AltaMed doctors who can keep you and your whole family healthy.