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January Means Learning To Protect Yourself From Cervical Cancer

Sacred Heart Medical Oncology Group

January has been designated by congress as National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and health officials nationwide are spreading the word that cervical cancer is preventable.

According to estimates from the National Cancer Institute, last year there were over 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer in the US.  Over 4,000 women died from the disease.  But those numbers used to be higher-- much higher.  Since the introduction of the Pap Smear test in the 1950s, cervical cancer rates in the US have declined by over 60%.

When talking about most cancers you use words like "risk factors" and "family history", but according to Dr. Angela Ziebarth, a gynecologic oncologist at Sacred Heart Cancer Center in Pensacola, things are different with cancer of the cervix.  Almost all cervical cancers are cause by the HPV, or Human Papillomavirus, which is a sexually transmitted virus.  Smoking is also a factor in the disease, but only because it makes it more difficult to clear HPV from your system.

Regardless of risk factors, the current recommendation from the CDC is that all women from age 21 to 65 get an annual Pap Smear. Under the Affordable Care Act these tests as well as screening for the HPV virus are covered with no co-pays. If an abnormality is found, the cervix can be examined in your doctor's office and, if needed, a larger sample can be taken for a biopsy.

Women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer are almost always surgically treated with a radical hysterectomy.  More advanced cases are usually given radiation treatment after the surgery.  Less advanced cases may be able to save a woman's fertility with a less invasive operation.

Dr. Ziebarth calls cervical cancer a preventable disease. That's not only because of the improvements in screening.  In 2006 the FDA licensed a vaccine against HPV called Gardasil. The vaccine was controversial when it was introduced as some parents objected to vaccinating a child against a sexually transmitted virus...but over the years it has become more accepted.

So if there's a big picture message of Cervical Cancer Awareness month it should be that there are many things you can do to protect yourself and your children, you just have to do them.

For more information check out this fact sheet.

Bob Barrett is a reporter for WUWF News. Follow him @BobWUWF or Bob@wuwf.org

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.