Jan 22, 2009

Cervical Cancer Screening: Do It, It’s Important

As you’ve heard, January is Cervical Cancer Screening Month. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent panel of experts which reviews clinical preventive services, has given an “A recommendation”—its highest endorsement—for regular cervical cancer screening, and Pap smears in particular, stating that regular testing reduces incidence and mortality of this type of cancer.

So what does that mean to you? To understand, it may help a little to know more about cervical cancer itself.

According to the National Cancer Institute, cervical cancer usually develops slowly over time. Before cancer appears in the cervix, the cells of the cervix go through changes known as dysplasia, in which cells that are not normal begin to appear in the cervical tissue. Later, cancer cells start to grow and spread more deeply into the cervix and to surrounding areas.

Although most women with cervical cancer have the human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, not all women with an HPV infection will develop cervical cancer. Many different types of HPV can affect the cervix and only some of them cause abnormal cells that may become cancer.

The HPV Vaccine, can protect against certain types of HPV viruses that have been linked to cervical cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that the vaccine be administered to females 11 and 12 years of age, although it may be given as early as 9 years of age on up to age 26 in those women who have not been sexually active. The vaccine does not protect against every type of HPV infection and cannot prevent all cervical cancers. It is still important to continue getting regular exams and Pap tests.

Pap smears can detect both HPV and the abnormal cells that cause cervical cancer early, which means your doctor has a chance to treat them before they become cancerous. In cases where cervical cancer is already present, Pap smears offer early diagnosis and a much higher chance of effective treatment and recovery.

Generally, Pap smears are recommended within three years of onset of sexual activity, or age 21, whichever comes first, with additional screening at least every three years afterward. Certain risk factors may change how frequently you should have the screening. As always, consult your doctor for personalized recommendations.

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