Celebrate Cervical Cancer Awareness Month by learning about cervical cancer screening and prevention
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month! The American Cancer Society predicts that over 13,000 cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed in 2020. The good news is that with regular screening, you can stop cervical cancer before it starts. We talked to Dr. Robin Bresette, MD, a family medicine provider at our Sheridan Clinic, about what causes cervical cancer, strategies for prevention, and some common misconceptions about the disease. We also talked with community health educator Tatiyanna Morrow, who leads outreach and education focused on cervical cancer screening and prevention at Neighborhood HealthSource.
What is cervical cancer? What causes it?
Cervical cancer is cancer affecting the cells of the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by certain strains of Human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection (STI). HPV is extremely common- about 80% of people will get an HPV infection at some point in their lifetime. Luckily, there is a vaccine against HPV. “Cervical cancer is currently the only form of cancer that can be vaccinated against,” explains Dr. Bresette.
The HPV vaccine is available for people ages 9-45. According to Dr. Bresette, early vaccination is best. “The longer you wait, the more likely you’ll be exposed to HPV,” she explains. “Getting vaccinated before you are sexually active (as an early adolescent or young adult) is ideal.” However, late is better than never, so if you weren’t vaccinated as a teen, it’s not too late, as long as you’re under 45.
The HPV vaccine is given in a series of shots. People under 15 years old need two shots, six months apart. People age 15-45 need three shots instead of two, given over the course of six months.
HPV affects people of all sexes, genders, and sexual orientations. It is important to be vaccinated for HPV even if you are not someone who has a cervix, since HPV spreads through sexual contact. Being screened and vaccinated is a way to protect your current and future partners, as well as yourself.
“Cervical cancer is currently the only form of cancer that can be vaccinated against.”Dr. Robin Bresette, MD, Sheridan Clinic
What tests are used to screen for cervical cancer?
There are two tests that screen for cervical cancer. The HPV test detects the presence of Human papillomavirus. Detecting and treating HPV is important in preventing cervical cancer, since certain strains of HPV can lead to cervical cancer if left untreated.
The Pap test (also called a Pap smear) screens for changes in the cells of the cervix, which could later develop into cancer. While HPV often causes these cellular changes, the Pap test does not check for the presence of HPV itself.
“A common misconception is that any pelvic or vaginal exam is a Pap test,” says Dr. Bresette. “You can have a pelvic exam without having a Pap test or an HPV test.” Check in with your doctor about which tests you need, and when.
How often should you be screened for cervical cancer?
You should be screened, either with a Pap test alone or Pap and HPV tests, for cervical cancer beginning at age 21, through age 65. If you are between age 21 and 29, and your test results are normal, should should be screened every three years. Over age 30, your provider may suggest being tested every 5 years if your results are normal. Over at 65, you no longer need screening if you have had normal test results for several years.
If you have abnormal test results, talk to your provider about next steps for further screening and treatment (if necessary).
Health disparities & cervical cancer
Tatiyanna Morrow provides cervical cancer outreach and education as a part of the Neighborhood HealthSource community health team. She also helps patients without insurance access screening and other resources in our clinics.
“There are significant disparities around cervical cancer for African American women in particular,” Tatiyanna explains. This often has to do with lack of access or lack of health insurance, she says. According to the National Institutes of Health, African Americans have the highest rates of death from cervical cancer.
To address these disparities in the communities Neighborhood HealthSource serves, Tatiyanna says, the clinic partners with the Minnesota Department of Health Sage Screening program. The program covers the cost of screening for patients without insurance with the goal of catching cancer early, in its most treatable stages.
“The earlier it gets detected, the easier it is to treat, and the less likely patients are to die from cervical cancer,” says Tatiyanna. Treatment for cervical cancer detected in its earliest stages is nearly 85% effective.
Get screened today!
Do you have questions about cervical cancer? Unsure if you’re up to date on your screening? Neighborhood HealthSource is here to help. To learn more about screening options and get help accessing cancer prevention services, call Tatiyanna Morrow at (612) 490-2767. To schedule an appointment with a provider, call our main line at (612) 588-9411.