With the new year just starting and the topic of health coming up in the form of resolutions, it’s time to focus not just on losing weight or maintaining healthy eating habits but also what you’re doing for those areas that you may not think about very often. January is Cervical Health Awareness Month and while it may not be the most cheerful topic to start the year off on, an important health resolution you can make this new year is to get tested for cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer occurs when cells in the cervix (the opening of the uterus) become abnormal and unstable, leading to an invasion of the cervical tissue. When cervical cancer does develop, it often is the result of being infected by HPV, which is the most common of STIs.
While being vaccinated for HPV can help lower your chances, it is still crucial to get regularly tested, as it takes anywhere from three to seven years for abnormal cells to develop into cancer. Regular testing can monitor changes in the cells or even see if the cells have undergone high-grade changes that require removal.
The usual mode of testing for cervical cancer is a pap smear, with some cases also including HPV testing. With both tests requiring cells from the inside of the cervix, the collection process is simple and routine. With the pap test, the cells are viewed to see if there are any abnormalities in the cells, whereas the HPV test screens for the thirteen to fourteen most common high-risk forms of HPV. Depending on your age, the form of testing will differ. For instance, if you are anywhere from age 20 to 29, you can stick to just a pap smear every three years. When you reach age 30, it is recommended that you get a pap smear and HPV test every five years, though you can continue being tested for pap smears alone every three years.
Once you reach age 65, as long as you do not have a history of moderate to severe abnormal cells or have had three negative pap tests in a row (or two negative HPV and pap tests in a row in the past ten years, with the last test being performed in the last five years), you can stop screening for cervical cancer. Even if you have had a hysterectomy, you should continue to be tested for cervical cancer for 20 years after the surgery, as cervical cells can still be present at the vagina’s top.
There are some women who should have more regular testing for cervical cancer than the usual three years. Women with a history of cervical cancer, HIV, a weakened immune system or who have been exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth should have more screenings at a much more frequent rate than the recommended routine testing. (Ask your doctor for their personal recommendation if this is your case.)
It’s important to note that if your test does come back with abnormal cells, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer. As previously stated, it takes years for cancer to develop and only in high-grade cell changes does that usually occur. Usually, cervical cell changes return to normal on their own. In the event that you do receive an abnormal test result, additional testing will may be required, such as a colonoscopy or a cervical biopsy, though you may only need a repeat test.
This year, make a resolution to keep an eye on your cervical health. The best way to protect your health is by paying attention to it, and it can save your life.