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Be aware of cervical cancer risks, tests
Health advice
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January is National Cervical Health Awareness Month, so please read the information below to understand the risks posed by cervical cancer and how it can be avoided.
Cervical cancer is common in women and usually grows slowly over a period of time. The cervix is the opening of the uterus and it connects the uterus to the birth canal. Before cancer cells develop on the cervix, the tissue goes through changes and abnormal cells appear. This condition is called dysplasia. Later, the abnormal cells turn into cancer and begin to grow.
According to the National Cancer Institute, strong risk factors include:
• Early age at first intercourse.
• A history of multiple sexual partners.
• Human papillomavirus infection or other sexually transmitted diseases.
• The presence or history of other genital tract abnormalities.
Human papillomavirus is actually a group of viruses that includes more than 100 different strains. More than 30 of these viruses are sexually transmitted and can infect men and women.  Most people who get HPV will not have any symptoms and the infection will clear up on its own, but HPV can cause normal cervical cells to turn abnormal. If HPV goes away, cervical cells return to normal. But if HPV lingers for many years, the abnormal cells can turn into cancer.
There is no treatment for HPV, but there is a vaccine that protects against the four HPV types that cause most cervical cancers and genital warts. This vaccine is most effective in females who have not yet had sex as they are unlikely to have HPV. But young, sexually active females may still benefit. The Gardasil vaccine is given to females between the ages of 9-26.
Women ages 60 and older are at greater risk for cervical cancer than younger females because older women are less willing or able to seek medical care or go for early screening. Many women don’t get screened for cervical cancer because they don’t think they are at risk.
There are no real symptoms during the early stages of cervical cancer. That is why is it is so important to have your doctor regularly perform a series of tests to look for it. The first test is a pap smear, which takes a sampling of cells from outside the cervix. The cells are then examined under a microscope. While most women feel pressure, the test is not painful and it can detect cervical cancer early.
Women who are or have been sexually active, or have reached age 18, should have pap tests and physical exams regularly. Women should discuss the frequency of testing with their doctors. There is no known upper age at which pap tests cease to be effective. Older women should have regular physical exams, including pelvic exams, and pap tests. Women who have consistently had normal test results may want to ask their doctors about how often an exam is needed.
Women who have had a hysterectomy (surgery to remove the uterus, including the cervix) should talk with their doctor about whether to continue with pap tests. If the hysterectomy was performed for treatment of a pre-cancerous or cancerous condition, the end of the vaginal canal still needs to be sampled for abnormal changes. If the hysterectomy was performed because of a non-cancerous condition, such as fibroids, routine pap tests may not be necessary. However, it is still important for a woman to have regular gynecologic examinations as part of her health-care routine.

Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.
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