Important Reminders about Screenings and Protections during Cervical Cancer Awareness Month
January is a time when many set new health goals and decide to prioritize wellness. For women, an appointment that should be prioritized is a wellness visit with a gynecologist. The month of January also happens to be Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, which serves as a perfect reminder of the importance of annual well-woman exams and their potential to catch cervical cancer early in its most preventable stages.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of death for women in the U.S. Dr. Kristyn Menendez, board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist (OB-GYN) at Ozarks Healthcare Women’s Health, says this is likely due to more women getting regular Pap tests (or Pap smears).
“Pap smears can help us detect cancer in its early or even precancerous stages,” Dr. Menendez said. “A simple smear can show us precancerous cell changes on a woman’s cervix. Cervical cancer often shows no symptoms or may be confused with other gynecological issues, so regular screenings are important. If your test results are normal, your chance of getting cervical cancer in future years is very low.”
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. Dr. Menendez says getting vaccinated and having regular screenings are the best ways to prevent cervical cancer.
“Vaccination and regular screenings are the most effective tools we have to reduce cases of cervical cancer,” Dr. Menendez said. “Getting the HPV vaccine before becoming sexually active offers the highest level of protection from HPV from an early age. Most are recommended to receive the HPV vaccine between ages 9 and 26. HPV vaccination may not be as effective after age 26, but adults over this age who have not already been vaccinated should talk to their doctor about the possible benefits of vaccination.”
HPV vaccines (Gardasil, Gardasil 9, and Cervarix) are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
While every woman is recommended to schedule an annual wellness exam, cervical cancer screening recommendations vary by age.
“I recommend regular Pap smears beginning at age 21, regardless of sexual activity,” Dr. Menendez said. “For ages 21 to 29, I recommend Pap smears every three years, unless something unusual shows up in the screening. For ages 30 to 65, I typically recommend Pap smears every three to five years. After the age of 65, Pap smears are only recommended if you have a history of cervical cancer. Of course, there are always some conditions or factors that may change these recommendations, so it’s always a good idea to visit with your doctor about what is right for you.”
While cervical cancer is typically unnoticeable, Dr. Menendez says it is important for women to monitor any pelvic pain, pain during urination, abnormal discharge, or abnormal spotting or bleeding. If any of these symptoms are experienced, it is important to contact your OB-GYN to be seen.
In addition to HPV vaccination and routine screenings, making healthy lifestyle choices can reduce your risk of cervical and other types of cancers.
“Limiting tobacco use, incorporating regular exercise into your day, maintaining a low stress level, and practicing general healthy choices can always positively impact your overall health and reduce your risk of some cancers,” Dr. Menendez said. “While these methods are not the ultimate answer, they are choices that can be easily made to boost your general wellness.”
Detecting cervical cancer early is extremely important. Depending on the cancer’s severity, cervical cancer can be treated with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. To avoid the need for these treatments, Dr. Menendez’s message this Cervical Cancer Month is to not delay your annual visit to your OB-GYN.
“Your annual woman’s wellness visit can change the direction of your life,” Dr. Menendez said. “Early detection and treatment and regularly checking in with your provider is key to ensuring a healthy life, whether we’re talking about cervical cancer or other illnesses.”
If you need to schedule your annual woman’s wellness visit, Dr. Menendez is accepting new patients at Ozarks Healthcare Women’s Health in 2022. Ozarks Healthcare Women’s Health provides comprehensive gynecologic, obstetric, and specialized care, including the latest advances in screenings and procedures and is located at 1627 Gibson St. in West Plains. For more information, call 417-256-1838 or visit https://www.ozarkshealthcare.com/services/womens/.
Ozarks Healthcare is a system of care encompassing primary care and specialty clinics, along with complete rehabilitation, behavioral healthcare, and home health services. While the 114-bed acute care hospital cares for more than 5,400 admissions, the entire health system has more than 364,000 patient visits annually in South Central Missouri and Northern Arkansas. For more information about Ozarks Healthcare, visit www.OzarksHealthcare.com.
Dr. Kristyn Menendez, board-certified OB-GYN, Ozarks Healthcare Women’s Health