Is It Time to Check Up on Your Cervical Health?
UT Health Austin gynecologic oncologist shares how routine screenings can reduce the risk of cervical cancer
Reviewed by: M. Yvette William-Brown, MD, MMS, FACOG
Written by: Lauren Schneider
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 13,000 people develop cervical cancer in the United States each year, with the highest rates of new cases among Hispanic women. Around 4,000 Americans die from cervical cancer annually, and Black women have the highest rates of death as a result of the condition.
“Cervical cancer is the fourth most prevalent cancer among women worldwide and the seventh most common cancer overall. While the condition touches countless lives each year, cervical cancer can be prevented through regular screenings,” shares M. Yvette Williams-Brown, MD, MMS, FACOG, a fellowship-trained gynecologic oncologist in both Women’s Health, a clinical partnership between UT Health Austin and Ascension Seton, and UT Health Austin’s Livestrong Cancer Institutes.
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that originates in the cells of the cervix. The word “cervix” comes from the Latin word meaning “neck.” Similar to a neck, the cervix is shaped roughly like a cylinder or tube and connects two important body parts—the uterus and vagina. Dr. Williams-Brown describes the cervix as the “neck of the womb,” as it is comprised of the lower portion of the uterus and allows fluid to pass between the uterus and the vagina.
The most concerning cervical conditions involve human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, 99% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV. There are more than 200 known types of HPV, 13 of which can cause cervical cancer.
“The biggest misconception people have about cervical cancer is that it only affects people who are currently sexually active,” cautions Dr. Williams-Brown. “However, cervical cancer can develop years after exposure to HPV.”
In most cases (roughly 9 out of every 10), HPV is naturally cleared up by the immune system within two years without causing any health problems. For some patients, the virus persists, altering the DNA of its host cells, causing them to become cancerous.
<br>How is cervical cancer treated?
“Treating cervical cancer carries significant health risks,” explains Dr. Williams-Brown. “The condition’s effects on fertility is one of the most serious complications of cervical cancer treatment. If the cervix and/or uterus must be removed during surgery, a person may lose the ability to carry a child in their womb. While these patients can still have biological children, if their ovaries have not been removed, they would need to have someone else carry the child.”
Other difficulties related to cervical cancer treatment include potential early menopause and changes to pelvic floor, bowel, and bladder function that may be brought on by radiation and/or chemotherapy. Because of the health concerns raised by both cervical cancer and its treatment, regular screenings are recommended to help identify cervical health concerns before cancer develops.
How and when should I be screened for cervical cancer?
Healthcare professionals screen for cervical cancer using a Pap test, an HPV test, or both. In a Pap test, also known as a Pap smear or cervical cytology, cells are collected from the cervix and examined for changes caused by HPV that may lead to cancer. The HPV test determines whether cells have been infected with the forms of HPV associated with the highest risk of cervical cancer.
The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that the following screenings be administered based on age:
- Age 21 to 29: A Pap test performed every 3 years
- Age 30 to 65: A Pap test performed every 3 years OR an HPV test every 5 years, with or without a Pap test
Dr. Williams-Brown warns that Pap tests and HPV tests are intended to screen for cervical cancer and do not screen for all gynecologic cancers. “People diagnosed with ovarian cancer or uterine cancer are sometimes surprised they were not diagnosed sooner because they always had their Pap tests performed during the recommended time frame.” For this reason, she emphasizes the importance of annual checkups to detect other conditions.
For more information about Women’s Health, visit here.
For more information about the Livestrong Cancer Institutes, visit here.