This is the perfect opportunity for clubwomen across North Carolina to help raise awareness of the important steps women can take to stay healthy. Cancer of the cervix, the opening of the uterus at the top of the vagina, was previously the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women in the United States. In the last 40 years, however, the number of diagnosed cases of cervical cancer has dropped dramatically primarily due to the combination of regular health screenings and the introduction of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.
What causes cervical cancer?
HPV, a sexually transmitted infection, is the leading cause of cervical cancer. There are many strains of the virus, which are divided into “low risk” and “high risk” categories. “Low risk” strains of HPV can cause genital warts while “high risk” types may cause abnormal pap smears, precancerous cervical changes, and cancer of the cervix.
How common is HPV?
In a word, very. It is estimated over 79 million Americans currently have HPV, with many of them unaware they are carrying the virus. The good news? Although HPV is extremely common, a vaccine to help prevent the virus, including those that most often lead to cervical cancer, is now available for young women and men ages 9 to 45. Individuals should contact their doctor with questions regarding the HPV vaccine.
Who is at risk for cervical cancer?
All women are at risk, but most cases occur in women over the age of 30. Additional risk factors include:
- Multiple sexual partners
- A personal history of abnormal cells of the cervix, vagina, or vulva
- A family history of cervical cancer
- Immune system deficits
- Long term use of birth control pills
How can I help prevent cancer of the cervix?
A pap smear is a screening tool that helps detect precancerous cells of the cervix, or cervical dysplasia. Regular Pap smears are recommended for women 21 years and older and allow for early treatment so abnormal cells do not become cancerous. In addition, an HPV test may be performed to look for the virus that can cause precancerous cell changes. A doctor can make recommendations on the frequency of follow-up needed based on your personal history and test results. Finally, all women, regardless of Pap smear or HPV test results, should continue yearly gynecological exams to evaluate the health of other reproductive organs.
How can my club help?
- Spread the word about the importance of regular health screenings with regards to cervical cancer prevention. Conduct a social media blitz in which you publish facts, statistics, and prevention measures for cervical cancer via Facebook or Twitter.
- Encourage women in your club and community to get an all-woman visit this year. Most health insurance plans cover the cost of important screening measures and are at little to no cost to the patient.
- Invite a pediatrician and/or gynecologist to speak about HPV and cervical cancer at a club meeting or community-wide event hosted by your club.
- Attach teal and white ribbons (the colors of cervical cancer awareness) to the article provided here and distribute to clubwomen, family, and friends to raise awareness of cervical cancer prevention.
Special thanks to Joel Bernstein, M.D., with Kamm McKenzie, OBGYN, from Raleigh, NC, for his assistance with this article.