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Cervical health awareness month: Prevention, risk factors, symptoms, and treatment

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January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. Nearly 13,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, but the disease is preventable. Cervical cancer is actually the easiest gynecologic cancer to prevent. Prevention can be achieved with vaccination and appropriate screening.

There are two screening tests that can help prevent or detect cervical cancer early.

  1. Pap test (pap smear): Tests for cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if not treated appropriately.
  2. HPV test: Tests for the human papillomavirus, which can lead to cell changes.

Almost all cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). There are many strands of HPV; some types can lead to cervical cancer while others cause genital or skin warts. Usually, HPV does not cause any symptoms and unless you get tested you may not know you have it. It can go away on its own, but if it doesn’t, overtime it could lead to more serious health issues. Risk factors associated with cervical cancer include:

  • Having several sexual partners
  • Smoking
  • Age
  • Having HIV or another condition that makes it hard for your body to fight off health problems
  • Immune system deficiency
  • Socioeconomic factors
  • Using birth control pills for a long time (five or more years)

While there can be signs or symptoms of cervical cancer, there oftentimes are not any. This is why the best way to prevent cervical cancer is by getting your regular screening tests. Any of the following could be signs or symptoms of cervical cancer:

  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • Bleeding after intercourse
  • Increased or unusual vaginal discharge
  • Light bleeding between or following periods
  • Bleeding after menopause
  • Discomfort while urinating
  • Heavier or longer menstrual periods
  • Loss of bladder control
  • Pelvic pain

If you are experiencing any of these signs or symptoms, it is very important that you setup an appointment with your doctor. If you do receive screening tests, it is important to follow up with your doctor to get your results. In the event that you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, there are multiple treatment options including surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Your doctor will go through all your different options as well as recommend what they think is the best treatment plan for your individual diagnosis.

Cervical cancer is the fourth most frequent cancer in women in the world with an estimated 570,000 new cases in 2018 representing 6.6% of all female cancers. In the U.S. in 2020 there will be an estimated 13,800 new cases of cervical cancer and 4,300 deaths. Take care of yourself through preventative measures by getting regular screenings.

If you are in need of a doctor or nurse midwife for women’s care, SIU Center for Family Medicine and SIU Medicine’s Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology provide women’s health care including gynecologic health and obstetrical care. Call 217.545.8000 today to make your women’s health appointment.

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