January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month

Local doctor stresses importance of annual exams, prevention

January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, an observance designed to increase public understanding of the disease, including its prevalence, screening tests and prevention.

“Early detection of cervical cancer gives women a 92 percent survival rate. Women should take this month to learn about the best options for them and their daughters for protecting themselves against cervical cancer,” said Thomas A. Carnevale, M.D., gynecologist/obstetrician with Penn Highlands Healthcare.

What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is malignant cancer that forms in tissues of the cervix (the organ connecting the uterus and vagina). Each year, approximately 12,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Early cervical cancer has no symptoms; however, when the disease progresses, symptoms include vaginal bleeding; back pain; painful or difficult urination and cloudy urine; chronic constipation and feeling of presence of stool despite having emptied bowel; moderate pain during sexual intercourse; vaginal discharge; and a single swollen leg.

Treatment for cervical cancer includes surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation. If caught early, the long-term outcome for patients is positive, Dr. Carnevale noted.

What are the risk factors?
According to Dr. Carnevale, almost all cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus that can be passed from one person to another during sex. There are many types of HPV. Some HPV types can cause changes on a woman’s cervix that can lead to cervical cancer over time, while other types can cause genital or skin warts.

HPV is so common that most people get it at some time in their lives. HPV usually causes no symptoms so you can't tell that you have it. For most women, HPV will go away on its own; however, if it does not, there is a chance that over time it may cause cervical cancer.

Deborah DeMuro, certified registered nurse practitioner, noted other factors can increase a women’s risk of cervical cancer such as smoking, compromised immune system and having several sexual partners.

While routine Pap testing is the best means of detecting cervical cancer at an early stage, vaccines have the potential to protect women from the disease by targeting cancer-causing types of HPV.

Two HPV vaccines are currently on the market and both are approved for use with girls and young women. One vaccine is also approved for use with boys and young men. The CDC recommends routine HPV vaccination for males and females ages 11-12, with “catch up” vaccination for those ages 13-26.

Being vaccinated against HPV makes it much less likely a woman will develop cervical cancer, or have precancerous cervical cell changes. HPV vaccines don’t protect against all types of HPV, though, so women need to continue having Pap tests and, as appropriate, HPV tests even after being vaccinated for HPV.

There are no serious side effects with the vaccine. Pain and mild fevers have been reported, but they do not last long and go away on their own, DeMuro said.

Some people may be allergic to a component of the vaccine if they have had previous allergies to yeast. These are things to talk about with a doctor.

In addition to the vaccine, there are other ways to help prevent cervical cancer. They include:

  • Having a Pap smear. Women should start having Pap smears at the age of 21 or earlier if recommended by their healthcare provider. In addition, women should speak with their healthcare provider about how often they should have a Pap smear.

  • Practicing abstinence or safe sex. Condoms reduce the transmission of HPV, but it doesn’t prevent it.
    For more information Dr. Carnevale and DeMuro are happy to answer questions about women’s health issues and are available for speaking engagements. They may be reached by calling their office located in the Medical Arts Building of Penn Highlands Clearfield at 814-765-4151.