By Dr. Crystal Moore
As women around the country turn their focus to resolutions and goals for the New Year, we have the collective opportunity to prioritize healthy behaviors and avoid highly preventable conditions, such as cervical cancer. January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, making the prevention of this condition a top women’s health priority as we enter 2017. As a pathologist, a physician who all too often diagnoses cervical cancer, I know that education about the risks and prevention is the first step to ensuring that no more women in the United States die of cervical cancer.
Why does cervical cancer happen?
First off, let us take a moment to understand the part of the body that is affected by cervical cancer, the cervix. The cervix in the lower portion of the uterus that rests at the top of the vagina. During birth, the cervix dilates to create the passageway where the baby exits the uterus.
The cervix is only one area of the body that can be affected by human papilloma virus or HPV, the cause of most cervical cancers. Other areas affected by sexually transmitted HPV include the genitals, anus, and oropharyngeal (mouth, throat, tonsils) region. Most HPV infections are asymptomatic and the body clears the infection naturally. Some people may develop warts on affected areas. These can be removed by your health care provider. And finally, some people will develop precancerous and cancerous lesions due to HPV infection.
An estimated 70 to 80 percent of Americans will be infected with HPV in their lifetime, making it the most common sexually transmitted disease. While everyone should be vigilant about HPV prevention and screenings, Black and Hispanic women have higher rates of HPV-associated cervical cancer than white and non-Hispanic women according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fortunately, only a small subset of HPV strains are known to cause cancer. Through regular screening, pathologists are able to identify these strains of HPV and precancerous lesions early. Early detection and follow up with treatment decreases morbidity and mortality from cervical cancer.
Am I at Risk?
Although cervical cancer occurs most frequently in women older than 30, all women who have been sexually active and have a cervix are at risk of developing this type of cancer. Cervical cancer can touch all women from every walk of life, but similar to ethnicity predispositions, some women are at a higher risk than others due to their history of pregnancy, genetics, and lifestyle choices.
Pregnancy is one factor that may increase a woman’s possibility of developing cervical cancer. Having at least three full-term pregnancies or having a full-term pregnancy before age 17 puts a woman at a higher risk, according to the American Cancer Society. Additionally, genetics play a role in whether a woman develops cervical cancer; women with a close relative who experienced cervical cancer are more likely to develop the condition. And, if you do not already have enough reasons to quit smoking, this habit doubles the likelihood of developing cervical cancer due to the role of cigarettes in weakening immune systems and the exposure to the chemicals in cigarettes.
Having one or more risk factors does not guarantee that a woman will develop cervical cancer; conversely, avoiding risk factors does not mean that cancer will not occur. However, proactive testing is important to diagnose HPV and precancerous cervical lesions early.