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Simple Ways to Stay Safe from Cervical Cancer

Even though the number of cervical cancer cases has been dropping for the last 40 years, Latina and black women have the highest rates of any group in the United States. What’s more, cervical cancer kills Latinas and Black 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. You can also explore the AltaMed Glow Healthy activities booklet with games and fast facts.

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 precancerous. 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 that 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 people 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.

A nurse gives an adolescent girl an HPV vaccine.

Protecting Against HPV with Vaccines

The strongest protection against HPV is the HPV vaccine. Studies showed a nearly 100% success rate in protecting against cervical precancer. 

The vaccine works best when received at ages 9 – 12. Younger people make more antibodies and thus only need two doses of the vaccine. People over the age of 15 require three doses. However, anyone ages 9 – 45 can get the vaccine. Adults ages 27 – 45 who are not vaccinated and who have been sexually active should speak to their provider. The HPV vaccine is both safe and effective. 

Preventing Cervical Cancer

In addition to 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. People with cervixes aged 21 – 65 should receive Pap smears every three years, or people aged 30 – 65 can get a Pap and HPV co-test every five years. 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:

  • Bring a friend or relative with you in the exam room.
  • Don’t be afraid to stop the exam and ask questions. If you do not feel comfortable with your current provider, you have the option to see a provider of your choice that you will feel more comfortable with.
  • 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.
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Women’s Health at AltaMed

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. To receive assistance by phone, call (888) 499-9303.

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See how AltaMed Health Services can help your family grow healthy.

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Essential Health Screenings that Every Woman Needs

Women are the pillars of their families, caring for loved ones every day. However, sometimes they neglect vital screenings necessary to protect themselves from potentially deadly diseases.

Breast cancercervical cancerheart disease, and diabetes are common health problems that impact millions of women. Diagnosing them early is essential. 

While some common conditions can be taken care of through telehealth appointments, there are still many preventive treatments and services that need to happen in person, including routine mammograms, Pap tests, blood pressure screenings, and medication evaluations.

In honor of Women’s Health Awareness Month, AltaMed is proud to help women of all backgrounds take charge of their well-being. Many screenings are covered at no charge by your health plan, so call us for details and to schedule and appointment. Read on to learn about the services you’ll need.

A woman receives a mammogram.

Why Mammograms Are a Must

You have about a 1 in 8 chance of developing breast cancer in your lifetime. A mammogram (an X-ray picture of the breast) is the best way to spot potential cancer early.

Your unique family history and personal risk factors will determine when you should start getting mammograms. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends healthy women of average risk get a mammogram once every year from age 40 to 74. Your doctor may recommend getting a mammogram as early as age 30 if you have a parent, sibling, or child who has had breast cancer.

We encourage you to regularly perform breast self-examinations to check for changes in look or feel. If you suspect something’s wrong, make an appointment to see your doctor.

Screening for Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer used to be one of the most common causes of death for women in the United States. Advances in Pap tests, including increased usage, have cut cervical cancer deaths dramatically.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends:

  • A Pap test every three years if you are between the ages of 21 and 65.
  • A Pap smear with specific HPV testing every five years if you are between the ages of 30 and 65.

Your doctor will make recommendations based on your unique health history and your family history.

Doctor Explaining the Results Analysis

Schedule Your Well-Woman Visit

Well-woman visits are essential and should be scheduled in addition to your mammograms and Pap tests. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends your first visit happen at age 13 to 15.

Because well-woman visits focus on preventive care, each visit may be slightly different based on your age and unique health needs. A visit may include:

  • Age-appropriate immunizations (for example, the flu vaccine or a TD shot, if needed).
  • Age-appropriate health screenings, which could include checking your blood pressure or a pelvic floor exam.
  • Recommendations for additional testing to screen for cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), or depression, as needed.

Your doctor will ask about your health history and any health goals; and will offer recommendations to help achieve those goals. To make the most of these visits, come prepared: think about any questions you have in advance, and take notes.

Here for Every Age and Every Stage of Life

Trust AltaMed to support your unique health needs. From primary care and specialists to dentistrybehavioral health services, and pharmacy, we are dedicated to caring for women and those they love. Schedule an appointment today by calling (888) 499-9303 or click here.

Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal Cancer Can Be Stopped with Early Detection

March is National Colorectal Cancer Month. It’s a time to raise awareness about one of the most common cancers affecting both men and women. It is the second leading cause of death by cancer in the U.S. after lung cancer according to the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). It also has one of the highest survival rates if detected early enough.

Despite that, more than 52,000 people died from colorectal cancer in 2023 according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). That’s more than one-third of the 153,020 people who were diagnosed with the disease last year. 

The risk of developing colorectal cancer goes up after the age of 50, however there has been a 1% to 2% increase in diagnoses of people under 50 each year. They now make up 10% of the cases in the U.S.

Colorectal Cancer Defined

Colorectal cancer is also known as just colon cancer. It’s a disease occurring in the colon or the rectum, which is the passage from the colon to the anus.

It’s often thought of as a men’s health issue because men are more likely to develop colorectal cancer, though it does affect both men and women.

Colon cancer starts with abnormal growths called polyps. These can become cancerous eventually. There is an excellent chance of survival if they are detected early enough. They can become cancerous when they’re not detected. The cancer will spread quickly to other parts of the body if left untreated.

Doctors recommend everyone over the age of 45 get screened. Those with a family history of colon cancer should be screened more frequently.

Woman With Pain in a Sofa

The Symptoms

There often aren’t any symptoms for colorectal cancer until it starts to spread. That is why screening is so important. Symptoms may include:

  • A noticeable change in bowel habits lasting four weeks or more
  • Bloody bowel movements
  • Enduring stomach pain or cramps
  • Unexplained weight loss

See your doctor as soon as possible if you have any of these symptoms, especially those related to your bathroom habits.

Hand With a Cigar

The Risk Factors

Some risk factors are unavoidable while others are within your control.

Age — which you can’t control — is the number one risk factor for colon cancer. Nine out of 10 colorectal cancer cases occur in people 50 or older.

Other risk factors include:

  • A personal history of inflammatory bowel disease
  • A family history of colorectal cancer
  • Certain genetic/inherited abnormalities such as Lynch syndrome, familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), and others

Let your doctor know if you have these risk factors. They may recommend earlier or more frequent testing.

Living a healthy lifestyle goes a long way toward cutting your risk of colon cancer. It can also lower your risk against other cancers, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, depression, and more.

Doctor with Senior Patient

Schedule a Checkup!

The CDC recommends regular screenings beginning at age 45, for those without special health concerns or a family history of colon issues. Screenings should continue until age 75. Screenings are some of the best protections against many types of cancer. Adults between the ages of 76 and 85 should get screened only when directed by a doctor.

There are several different ways to test for colorectal cancer. Your doctor will recommend the best option for you based on your health history, current risk factors, and personal preferences.

Some tests, like the fecal immunochemical test (FIT), are done once a year, and can even be done in your own home with no special preparation.

A colonoscopy is a more invasive screening but is only performed once every 10 years. It should be performed more frequently when recommended by a doctor.

In many cases, colorectal cancer screenings are covered at no cost by most health care plans.

We're Here to Serve You

Come to AltaMed to get screened, especially if you’ve been putting it off. You may be able to get a FIT kit by mail, but you should still come in. Call us at (888) 499-9303 to learn more and schedule an appointment.

Simple Ways to Stay Safe from Cervical Cancer