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Cervical Cancer: What You Need to Know

September 25, 2015

Kelly Pozzoli was in her early 30s and in the process of moving from Chicago to Florida when she got news that no young woman wants to hear: she had cancer.

In December 2011, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Kelly is featured in the film, “Someone You Love: The HPV Epidemic,” a new documentary that details the lives of five women with a HPV, the virus that causes cervical cancer.

Unfortunately, thousands of women share Kelly’s story. According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 13,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer this year.

The Pap test, which screens for cervical cancer, has helped us reduce cervical cancer deaths by more than 50 percent over the last 30 years. However, we still lose too many women every year to this disease.

This has to change, and that starts with educating women about cervical cancer symptoms and the importance of HPV screening and regular Pap tests. This cancer is curable when diagnosed early, but women often mistake its symptoms—including bloating, heavy menstrual periods or pain during sex—for other conditions.

Every woman should be aware of her risks for cervical cancer. Here’s what you should know.

The Importance of Prevention & Early Detection

Even if you received the HPV vaccine, HPV screening and regular Pap tests are critical for the prevention of cervical cancer.

A Pap test looks for changes in the cervix that could indicate cancer. The test can do two things: identify pre-cancers before they develop into cervical cancer and find cancer in its early stages when it is easier to treat. If you are under age 65, getting a Pap test every 3-5 years is critical. If you’ve had abnormal test results in the past, talk to your doctor about whether you need to get a Pap test more often. Research shows that women who regularly get Pap tests are less likely to develop cervical cancer.

An HPV test can be performed at the same time as a Pap test. If you plan to visit a gynecologist, it’s a good idea to do both tests if it’s been several years since your last check-up. HPV is responsible for the majority of cervical cancer cases. Any women who is sexually active is at risk of getting HPV, but getting this infection doesn’t necessarily mean she will get cervical cancer. However, women who have persistent HPV infections have a greater risk of getting this disease.

Treatment Options

Treatment for cervical cancer will vary depending on the type and stage of the cancer. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are the most common treatment options. If the cancer is caught early, surgery followed by a combination of radiation and chemotherapy may be the best way to remove cancer cells. Surgery may involve a hysterectomy to remove the uterus or cryosurgery, a procedure that kills cancer cells by freezing them. A trachelectomy, which removes the cervix and upper part of the vagina but not the uterus, is another treatment option for women with early-stage cervical cancer. For late-stage cancers, we typically use combination radiation and chemotherapy to treat the disease.

Though these treatments are often lifesaving, they do come with side effects. A hysterectomy stops a woman’s menstrual periods, leading to infertility and early menopause. Chemotherapy and radiation can cause nausea, vomiting, hair loss, fatigue and muscle weakness.  

Cervical cancer is preventable. Any woman or young girl between the ages of nine and 26 should get the HPV vaccine. Late last year, the FDA approved a new vaccine that covers nine strains of the virus. The FDA says the new vaccine could prevent 90 percent of cervical, vaginal and anal cancers. If you are over 30, get an HPV and Pap test every three years at minimum. And while you take the necessary steps to protect your own health, also educate other women about how they can preserve their own. We should do everything possible to raise awareness. Tamika Felder, one of the women featured in “Someone You Love: The HPV Epidemic,” put it best: “Until all of us are screaming about preventing cervical cancer then the few of us who do scream have to scream loud enough for everybody.”

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