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Women Need Annual Checkups to Stay Healthy

January 17, 2012

Cervical Health Awareness Month Focuses on Prevention

Cervical cancer is a highly preventable type of cancer that affects about 12,000 women in the U.S. each year, according to the National Cancer Institute. About 4,000 women die each year from the disease despite advances in the prevention and detection of cervical cancer. Cervical Health Awareness Month in January was created to educate women about ways to prevent cervical cancer and stay healthy.

Cervical cancer only affects women because only women have a cervix, which connects the uterus to the vagina. The cervix is covered by a thin layer of cells.

Cervical cancer rates among women have been drastically reduced since the Pap test was introduced in the 1950s. The test detects cell changes in the cervix that could lead to cancer.

“Before the Pap test, cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer deaths among women,” said Dr. Stacey Barrie, a Fremont gynecologist and member of the Washington Hospital medical staff. “Cervical cancer has been reduced by 90 percent since the introduction of the Pap test.”

In most cases, cervical cancer can be prevented through the early detection and treatment of abnormal cell changes in the cervix long before cancer develops, according to Barrie. Women should begin having a Pap test at age 21, she said. Women should have the test every one to three years depending on their age and whether their last test was negative or positive.

Virus Causes Cancer

Most cervical cancer is caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), a group of more than 100 different viruses. Some types of HPV may cause symptoms like genital warts, but most people infected with HPV have no symptoms.

“HPV is a very common, sexually transmitted virus,” Barrie said. “More than half of sexually active men and women are infected with HPV at some point in their lives. About 20 million people in this country are thought to have an active HPV infection at any given time. So it is very widespread.”

The HPV vaccine can help prevent infection from both the high-risk HPV strains that can lead to cervical cancer and the low-risk types that can cause genital warts. The vaccine is effective at preventing the HPV strains that cause about 70 percent of the cervical cancer cases, according to Barrie.

She recommends that young people (female and male) get vaccinated between the ages of 9 and 26. Even if the person has tested positive for HPV before being vaccinated, the vaccination is still important because it protects against other strains of HPV that could cause cancer, she explained.

“The vaccine protects against four strains of HPV,” Barrie added. “Hopefully, the next generation will see a lot less HPV infection.”

In addition to the vaccine, women should be tested for the HPV virus beginning at age 30. The test can be done at the same time as the Pap test and detects whether a high-risk type of HPV is present, she explained.

Annual Exams

Barrie stressed that even though many women don’t need an annual Pap test depending on their age and outcome of their last test, they should get an annual gynecological exam. As soon as women are sexually active, they should get annual checkups, according to Barrie.

“Women should get tested for other sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea and Chlamydia,” Barrie said. “Chlamydia is the most common sexually transmitted disease and it can be serious. Often there are no symptoms associated with the disease, but it can affect women’s fertility and pregnancies when left untreated.”

Chlamydia is an infection that is caused by bacteria. The disease can cause inflammation in the cervix, which can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, Barrie explained.

She said women should also have an annual physical exam of their cervix, which allows doctors to detect any physical changes that could lead to disease.

“It’s important to get an annual checkup where your pelvis and breasts are examined and you get your blood pressure checked,” Barrie added. “An annual exam is the best way for women to stay healthy.”

For more information about the screenings and wellness programs offered at Washington Hospital, visit www.whhs.com. To learn about services offered at the Washington Women’s Center, visit www.whhs.com/womenscenter.