Opinion — Cervical Cancer Awareness Month

Published 7:02 pm Saturday, January 29, 2022

The anticipation of a new year often inspires people to make New Year resolutions with one of the most common being better health and fitness. Examples of these efforts can be seen in the increase in gym memberships and weight loss program enrollments. While January is the start of a new year, it is also recognized as Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. At one time, cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer deaths among women, with one of the most notable being Henrietta Lacks, a local native. With advances in medical research, such as the discovery of HeLa cells (named for Lacks), the Pap test, and the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine, cervical cancer has become one of the most preventable forms of cancer in the United States. 

What is cervical cancer? Cervical cancer occurs when there is uncontrolled cellular growth in the lining of the cervix. The cervix is the opening into the uterus from the vagina. The changes in these cells do not happen suddenly; they gradually occur over time. Before developing into cancer, the cells that demonstrate any changes are often referred to as precancerous. These precancerous cells may resolve on their own or, if they persist, develop into cancer. Detecting and treating these cellular changes before they turn into “true” cancer are important to having a successful outcome. 

Precancerous cells often occur when cervical cells have become infected with HPV, the cause of more than 90% of cervical cancer diagnoses. HPV is a group of more than100 viruses that can be spread by sexual contact and is the most common sexually transmitted infection, with more than 14 million new infections occurring annually.  In most cases, the human immune system can rid the body of HPV infection before it can be detected.  However, some types of HPV may lead to warts or certain cancers, like cervical or throat cancer. The longer HPV persists in the body, the greater chance of developing precancerous cells and cancer. 

Research has determined that the following risk factors increase the chance of developing cervical cancer: chronic HPV infection, multiple sexual encounters with different partners, early onset of sexual activity, cigarette smoking, multiple child births, long-term use of oral contraceptives (discuss the risks/benefits with your healthcare provider), a weakened immune system, or exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) in the womb Signs and symptoms of cervical cancer may include the following: abnormal vaginal bleeding (i.e. longer/heavier periods, bleeding after intercourse, or bleeding/spotting between periods), pain with intercourse, an unusual vaginal discharge, or pelvic pain. It is important to understand that these symptoms can be present with other conditions, so it is imperative to consult with a medical provider regarding any unusual symptoms or concerns. 

Having effective preventive and screening methods can prevent most cases of cervical cancer. Currently, the primary method of prevention is receiving vaccination against HPV.  Currently, three FDA approved HPV vaccines are available for protection against the HPV strains that can lead to cancer. These vaccines have proven to effectively prevent HPV infections, high grade precancerous cervical lesions, and invasive cancer. Vaccination is recommended between the ages of 11 and 12; however, it is possible to use the catch up vaccination schedule provided by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP).  Though vaccine against HPV is available, regular screening is still a necessary tool in the prevention of cervical cancer. Screening for cervical cancer and HPV is performed by your healthcare provider with a Pap test. The Pap test can detect HPV infection and precancerous lesions. Since the development and adoption of guidelines for regular Pap testing, cervical cancer has fallen to Number 20 on the list of leading cancers in women. 

As we ponder the wonderful possibilities that a new year can bring, let us also make our cervical health a priority. If you are uninsured or underinsured, please contact Southside Health District at (434) 738-6545 to learn about programs available that assist with the cost of vaccination and Pap tests. 

Make 2022 the year of becoming a healthier you.

Candice L. Bruce, MSN, WHNP-BC, FNP-BC is a Nurse Practitioner in the Southside Health District.