January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. More than 14,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, but this invasive disease is preventable. Medical Advisory Board Member Dr. Anita Mikkilineni answers our questions about how to care for our cervical health and offers some helpful resources to better understand risk factors and simple things we can all do to protect ourselves.
Are there warning signs for cervical health concerns?
Most of the time early changes in cervical health are asymptomatic. While abnormal bleeding can be a sign of cervical health problems, this is a very non-specific symptom that can have many causes. The Pap smear and/or HPV based testing is the only screening we currently have that is effective in detecting cervical cancer.
What can a woman do to prevent cervical cancer?
The HPV vaccine, Gardasil, is probably the most important preventative measure one can take outside of receiving regular PAP/HPV based screenings. Every year around 36,000 men and women are diagnosed with cancer due to HPV, and the vaccine could prevent 90% of these cancers.
Can a woman do a self-exam, or are pap smears the only option?
The CDC has begun looking into offering self-collection for HPV screening samples in hopes of achieving higher rates of screenings for cervical cancer. This could be particularly helpful for low income women and/or women who are uninsured or underinsured. Self-collection is as sensitive as provider collection for HPV testing for detecting high-grade cervical precancers and cancers, if highly sensitive assays are used. However, there is still much to be done before this is FDA approved and implemented more widely as a screening method.
What is good cervical self care?
It is no surprise that factors that help your overall health and immune system can help your cervix fight off HPV infection, such as stress management and getting adequate sleep. Smoking is a huge risk factor for cervical cancer. Women who smoke are twice as likely to get cervical cancer compared to women who do not. There has been documentation of tobacco byproducts in cervical mucus which likely plays a role in the development of cervical cancer. Chlamydia infection, which is spread by sexual contact, may also help HPV grow and live on the cervix increasing the risk of cervical cancer. Regular condom use can go a long way in preventing chlamydia and other sexually transmitted infections.