January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, making this the perfect time to talk about a preventable disease. There are many cancers and diseases that we can’t prevent, they don’t discriminate, and they don’t hit only certain types of people. Cervical cancer isn’t one of those. Although cervical cancer affects only women, the virus that can cause it can be transmitted by men, so men don’t put the paper down just yet – there is something everyone can take away from this article. January is often a time we think about the year ahead. This year think about how you can help yourself or others prevent cervical cancer!
Chances are you know a woman! They are our mothers, sisters, aunts, wives, girlfriends, best friends, etc. So, when a woman dies of Cervical Cancer, she isn’t just a statistic, she is a major loss to those who loved her. In a small community like ours, when we lose someone to cervical cancer, that loss is felt throughout the community. By raising awareness and taking the proper steps, we can help stop people from losing those important women in their lives.
Cervical cancer, or cancer of the cervix, is cancer of the entrance to the uterus (womb). Cervical cancer occurs most commonly in women over the age of 30. The American Cancer Society estimated that 13,800 diagnoses of cervical cancer would be made by the end of 2020 in the United States, an increase of over 2,500 over the past 10 years. Even more sadly, they estimated more than 4,290 women in the U.S. died from cervical cancer last year. The American Cancer Society also breaks these numbers down by state. In Vermont they expected 3,740 people to be diagnosed with cancer and 1,450 would die in 2020 alone, some of those with cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is almost always caused by the Human Papillomavirus, better known as HPV. There are over 100 different types of the Human Papillomavirus. Most of the strains of this common virus cause no harm and go away on their own. The CDC estimates that over 50% of sexually active people catch some type of HPV in their lifetime. 80% of females acquire HPV by age 50. Many show no symptoms of the virus but may pass it on to others through intimate contact. Some strains of this virus, however, may cause diseases and/or cancer. Scientists have isolated HPV 6, 11, 16, and 18 as the cause of 70% of cervical cancers and 90% of genital warts. Over 10,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year in the U.S. costing more than $5 billion in healthcare costs.
Did you know that there is now a vaccine that can help decrease the chances of young women contracting cervical cancer and other diseases caused by HPV? At this time, there is an approved vaccine available and recommended by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is intended for girls and women, nine to 26 years of age, to protect against Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV vaccines are given as three shots to protect against HPV infection and HPV-related diseases. Two vaccines (Cervarix and Gardasil) have been shown to protect against most cervical cancers in women. One vaccine (Gardasil) also protects against genital warts and has been shown to protect against cancers of the anus, vagina and vulva. Both vaccines are available for females. Only Gardasil is available for males. HPV vaccines offer the most health benefits to those who receive all three doses before having any type of sexual activity. That’s why HPV vaccination is recommended for preteen girls and boys at age 11 or 12 years.
While most patients being vaccinated with Gardasil do not have side effects, the doctor should be informed if there is any allergic reaction to the first dose of the vaccine. This could present as pain, swelling, itching, and redness at the injection site, fever, or dizziness. The doctor should also be informed if the patient has a bleeding disorder, has a weakened immune system, or if she is on any medications, either prescribed or over-the-counter. Most will have some pain at the injection site that should subside in a day or so and daily activities should not be compromised. All women should continue routine cervical cancer screenings as part of a healthy maintenance plan with or without the immunization.
While Gardasil may not fully protect everyone and does not protect against other non-HPV diseases, it is a good first step in protecting young women from facing cervical cancer in the future. The best way, as with many cancers, is always early detection. With January being National Cervical Cancer Awareness month, let it be a reminder to you and to all the women in your life, that regardless of age, annual appointments and checkups are necessary for keeping on top of all health problems, not just cervical cancer. Early-stage cervical cancer diagnosis allows for more options for treatment and greater quality and quantity of life. Everyone needs to be aware of this disease and take the preventive steps, so we can keep our friends, mothers, and daughters alive and healthy. Remember you may feel like to the world you are just somebody, but to somebody, you could mean the whole world. Make the appointment, prepare your questions for your doctor if you have concerns, investigate vaccinations and help raise awareness! The more we are aware, the more we can prepare.
Director of The Wellness Center