You exercise regularly, eat healthfully, keep stress in check, have your blood pressure and cholesterol checked annually, and undergo a screening mammogram at least every two years—in short, you feel as if you have preventive health under control. But something important is missing.
You’ve fallen off schedule for having Pap and human papillomavirus (HPV) tests to detect cervical cancer, a disease the American Cancer Society (ACS) estimated would cause approximately 4,000 deaths in 2013. Cervical cancer can be a silent threat, often developing without symptoms. Preventive exams are the most potent tools women have to monitor cervical health: The earlier a problem is detected, the easier it is to treat.
Get a Step Ahead of Cancer
Pap and HPV tests can put time on your side. Sample cells collected during a Pap exam may reveal changes that presage cancer. In most cervical cancer cases, HPV causes those cellular alterations; an HPV test can determine if the virus is present.
Several United States health organizations, including the ACS, U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, recommend having a Pap test at least every three years from ages 21 to 65. Those medical bodies also advise beginning HPV co-testing—having an HPV test at the same time as a Pap test—at age 30 and continuing until age 65. Women may stop screening at age 65 if they have a history of normal results. They may also discontinue testing if they have a total hysterectomy.
Celebrate Cervical Health Awareness Month this January by scheduling an appointment with your gynecologist to have the cervical health test(s) you need. Prevention is powerful. During the second half of the 20th century, the Pap test helped turn an often deadly disease into one that’s eminently curable if detected early. The cervical cancer death rate dropped by nearly 70 percent from 1955 to 1992, largely due to a rise in Pap test usage, according to the ACS.
As you prepare to get back on course with screening, take another important step to monitor cervical health: Don’t shrug off unexplained vaginal bleeding or discharge. Those abnormalities could be signs of advanced cervical cancer and warrant medical attention.
Finally, keep up the good prevention work—and spread the word about the importance of cervical health awareness to the women you love.
This article was reviewed by Susan Benson, MD, FACOG, St.Vincent Medical Group, located at 8535 North Clear View Drive, Suite 700, in McCordsville. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Benson, call 317.415.6450.