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How to reduce your risk for cervical cancer


How to reduce your risk for cervical cancer

Every year, an estimated 13,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the U.S. Fortunately, there are effective ways to reduce your risk for the disease.
Cervical cancer occurs when abnormal cells grow on the cervix, the canal that connects the vagina to the uterus. If found early, cervical cancer is highly treatable, but the disease can be fatal if it advances to a late stage.
A recent study showed a concerning increase in the number of women being diagnosed with late-stage cervical cancer across the U.S. Only 17 percent of women diagnosed with late-stage cervical cancer live longer than five years following the diagnosis.

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The good news is that routine screening is very effective at catching cervical cancer early, when it typically has no symptoms and before it has a chance to spread.
An infection of human papillomavirus (HPV) is the primary cause of cervical cancer, says Dr. Melissa Wyche, an OB-GYN who practices at the Holmestown Road and Georgetown locations of Tidelands Health Women’s Center.

“HPV is the most common viral infection that causes cervical cancer, and it is very prominent in sexually active men and women. Unfortunately, we see a lot of women who are not vaccinated against the HPV virus,” Dr. Wyche says.
HPV vaccination eligibility begins at age 9. Girls ages 9 to 14 receive a two-shot series; females ages 15 to 45 receive a three-shot series to protect against the virus.
“The HPV vaccine will protect you from contracting HPV as you become an adult and go on to become sexually active. That can dramatically decrease your risk for the disease,” Dr. Wyche says.
The vaccine can be given outside of the teen years, Dr. Wyche says. Women up to age 45 should discuss risk factors and health considerations with an OB-GYN or other qualified health care provider.
“It’s very reasonable for someone between 18 and 45 to ask their doctor about getting the vaccine series,” she says.

Routine screenings

Along with vaccination against HPV, Dr. Wyche says regular pelvic exams and Pap smears can identify cervical cancer earlier when it’s the most effectively treated.
Regular HPV tests, often done in conjunction with a Pap smear, can alert you and your doctor to the presence of the virus.
Women should start having Pap smears and HPV tests at the age of 21. The tests should be repeated every three to five years, depending on age and other risk factors.

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In addition to routine Pap smears and HPV screening, Dr. Wyche says women should also have a pelvic exam once per year. During a pelvic exam, your OB-GYN will assess the health of your vagina using a speculum and a manual exam.
“In addition to undergoing regular Pap smears and HPV screening, seeing your physician regularly for pelvic exams gives you the chance to discuss symptoms you may not have realized were associated with gynecological cancers. Bloating, pressure, unexplained abdominal pain and changes in bathroom habits can indicate a bigger problem,” Dr. Wyche says.
Patients who are nervous about pelvic exams should discuss their concerns with their providers before the exam starts.
“For me, I always talk to patients while they’re still sitting in the exam room. I talk them through what I’m going to be doing,” Dr. Wyche says. “It gives us a chance to get to know each other and go over any concerns they have. I find that that typically makes patients a little more comfortable during the actual exam.”

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