Each January, Cervical Cancer Awareness Month is observed. While this disease claims the lives of close to 5,000 women a year, the number of deaths has dropped significantly since 1955 because of early detection techniques. In fact, cervical cancer is considered one of the great success stories in cancer research because it is now known what causes it, the risk factors for it, and that early detection and prevention efforts potentially could eradicate it.
Cervical cancer grows slowly, so with appropriate screening, most women who develop it — or are on the path to developing it — can be easily diagnosed and hopefully cured. However, because cervical cancer often have no signs or symptoms, it is important that woman have regular Pap tests. Sadly, too often women will look after others at their own expense, putting off a Pap test for years, or even decades, when early detection is crucial to successful treatment. When symptoms do occur, it is often when the cancer is further along and has spread to nearby areas.
It is important to note that a Pap test is a screening test, not a diagnostic test. An abnormal Pap test result often means that other tests will need to be done to find out if a cancer or a pre-cancer is really there. There are various types of diagnostic tests, including colposcopy, cystoscopy, proctoscopy, or various imaging studies, such as a CT or PET scan.
For cervical cancer, the most important risk factor is infection with a virus known as HPV (human papilloma virus), which is actually a group of nearly 100 related viruses that can infect cells on the surface of the skin. In fact, many doctors believe that a woman must be infected by HPV before she develops cervical cancer. Some types of HPV cause genital warts, while other types cause cervical cancer. The kinds that cause cancer are called “high-risk” HPVs. HPV is typically referred to as a sexually transmitted disease, but the reality is that it can be passed from person to person by any kind of skin-to-skin contact with a part of the body infected with HPV.
While many women may have HPV, very few of these women will ever get cervical cancer. In most cases the body fights off the virus, and the infection goes away without any treatment. But in some women, the infection lasts and can cause cervical cancer.
Since early detection is key to fighting cervical cancer, encourage the women in your life to receive annual Pap tests in order to help ensure early detection.