January is Cervical Health Awareness Month -- and while most people don’t think about their cervix on a daily basis, it’s an important part of your reproductive system and keeping it healthy and cancer-free deserves some attention.
Cervical cancer is normally caused when the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infects the cervix during sexual activity. There are various types of HPV. Most of them will never harm the body or cause any symptoms. Low-risk types may cause genital warts and high-risk types can lead to cancer.
Of the more 12,000 people diagnosed with cervical cancer each year in the United States, more than half have either never been screened or haven’t been screened in the past five years. Screenings and early detection are especially crucial for BIPOC communities. In the U.S., Latinx and Black communities suffer disproportionately from cervical cancer due to structural inequities in health care. Latinas have a higher rate of cervical cancer than white women, and Black women have the highest mortality rates from cervical cancer of any racial or ethnic group in the U.S.
Fortunately, because we have an excellent screening test for finding cells BEFORE they become cancerous, cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers.
We spoke with Chief Medical Officer Dr. Amy Whitaker, to answer some common questions about cervical health, cancer prevention, and why it’s important to get to know your cervix.
What is a Pap test and how often do I need one?
A Pap test is a simple screening tool designed to detect any changes to your cervix and screen for cells that are at risk for changing into cervical cancer. Everyone with a cervix should get regular Pap tests, including but not limited to most cis-women and trans-men. During a Pap test, a provider inserts a speculum into the vagina and brushes the cervix lightly to gather cells. The collected cells are then sent to a lab where they are tested for abnormalities.
Pap tests are important because monitoring your cervix can help keep you healthy for years to come. Recommendations vary on how often people should get a Pap test, depending on age, medical history and previous Pap test results. But having regular Pap tests can help you discover precancerous cells (cells that are at risk for changing into cancer cells) in your cervix, which can be an early warning sign of cancer--and early detection is key to good health.
Your medical provider can tell you when your next screening is due.
What happens if I have an abnormal Pap test result?
Most people with cervixes will have an abnormal Pap at some point in their lives, for a variety of reasons.
According to the Center for Disease Control, almost all sexually active people will be exposed to HPV at some point in their lives. Most people will never even know because most strains don’t cause symptoms. And because HPV takes years to cause abnormal cells, most people don’t know when they were exposed.
If your Pap test comes back with abnormal results, it may be recommended that you have a colposcopy. A colposcopy is a test that allows your provider to get a closer look at the cervix and, if needed, do a biopsy.
What else can I do to protect myself?
In addition to getting regular Pap tests, consider getting the HPV vaccine. While there is no cure for HPV, vaccines like Gardasil can protect against both high and low-risk strains of HPV.
HPV not only causes cervical cancer, but can also cause cancer in the vulva, vagina, penis, rectum, and throat. Ideally, people should get vaccinated before they become sexually active, but it’s never too late to take control of your health. HPV vaccines are FDA-approved for people up to 45 years old.
As many as 93% of cervical cancer cases could be avoided by screening and a HPV vaccination. And thanks to the Affordable Care Act, more people have access to cervical cancer screenings and other preventive care without copays or out-of-pocket expenses. Regardless of your health insurance status, affordable care is always available at Planned Parenthood health centers.
Care for your future. Make an appointment today: (877) 200-PPIL.