January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, making the new year the perfect time to highlight cervical cancer and the importance of early detection and prevention methods.

Cervical cancer originates in the cervix (lower part of the uterus) and typically is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted virus. More than 12,000 U.S. women are diagnosed with the disease annually, and although preventable and usually curable, it also claims the lives of 4,000 American women each year (http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/statistics/).

“Cervical Health Awareness Month serves as a great reminder for women to talk to their health care provider about cervical cancer screening and prevention,” says Trisha Sheridan, M.S.N., assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing and a practicing women’s health nurse practitioner.

The most common, and effective, preventative measure is screening tests, which find changes in cervical cells before cancer develops. There are two types: the Pap test (or Pap smear) and the HPV test.

The Pap test is performed during a well-woman visit and looks for precancerous cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if not treated appropriately. Women should begin routine Pap tests at age 21, with women 21-29 receiving one every three years. Women age 30-65 also should have a Pap test every three years or a Pap test plus HPV test every five years. The annual well-woman visit is still recommended annually, Sheridan notes.

The HPV test looks for high-risk HPV in a women’s cervix, and in most cases, the same sample taken for a Pap test can be used to test for HPV.

“A positive HPV test does not necessarily mean that a woman has cancer or will develop cancer,” Sheridan says. “HPV tests are not routinely recommended in women under 30 because the virus is very common in this age group.”

In fact, Sheridan notes that HPV is a prevalent virus most people will become infected with at some point in their lifetime. The body’s immune system usually clears the infection, and HPV goes away on its own.

The HPV vaccine is another method of prevention available to protect females and males against some of the most common HPV types.

“It is really important for children, both girls and boys, to be vaccinated before the onset of sexual activity,” Sheridan says. “It is also important for those who have already been infected to receive the vaccinations because the vaccine will still protect against other HPV types they may not have been infected with.”

Sheridan adds that practicing safe sex, limiting sexual partners, and having yourself and your partner vaccinated will greatly reduce the risk of HPV infection.

“Cervical cancer is not a fast growing cancer, and routine screening is generally an effective preventative measure,” Sheridan says.

For more information about Cervical Health Awareness Month, visit www.nccc-online.org.

— Holly Shive

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