Listen up, moms and daughters. January is cervical health awareness month—time to schedule wellness exams and encourage those around us to be proactive in fighting against cervical cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 13, 000 women in the United States will be diagnosed this year with the disease and an estimated 4,000 will die. So what should you do?
Concepcion R. Diaz-Arrastia, gynecologist-oncologist with UT Physicians, said the best precaution is getting screened. “We need to be serious about our health care—and please do not let losing your insurance be the reason you do not get screened,” said Dr. Diaz-Arrastia. “There are so many programs and financial assistance out there. We have to catch this disease as soon as possible. If you live in the Houston area, pick up the phone and call 411. They will guide you on programs you can access so you can get an exam.”
What is cervical cancer? It starts when cells in the cervix, which is located in the lower part of the uterus, begin to grow out of control. That abnormal growth is usually caused by exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is spread by sexual contact with someone who has the virus. There are many various forms of HPV. Some versions of HPV can cause genital warts and others have no symptoms at all. The normal cells in the cervix do not immediately react to HPV. The cells gradually begin to change and become precancerous. That is why an annual exam becomes so important according to Dr. Diaz-Arrastia.
“During a pap smear, we get a swab of the cells on the cervix so we can see if there is anything suspicious,” said Dr. Diaz-Arrastia. “It is also important—if you have not been screened—that you are looking for symptoms of cervical cancer. If you have vaginal bleeding between periods, after sexual intercourse or after menopause, contact a health care provider immediately.”
Other symptoms of cervical cancer include: unusual vaginal discharge, unexplained weight loss, pain during sexual intercourse, back pain, leg pain and fatigue.
Mayte Sanchez is a cancer survivor and recalled when she first received the news about her diagnosis. She was 38 weeks pregnant. “I will never forget the feeling,” remembered Sanchez. “I was so excited looking forward to the birth of my baby—and now to be told I had cancer—it was horrible. I call my son my little miracle baby. I feel like he was holding on to the very end of the pregnancy so they would do that screening.”
Today, Sanchez is cancer-free and urges women to make time for yourself and get tested. Her struggle with cancer could have been prevented with an annual screening. “When they say they don’t have time, I tell them you never want to know what I went through,” said Sanchez. “I explain how mine was already in the lymph nodes by the time it was caught. My story could be different. My biggest fear was not seeing my children grow up. Not everyone has a happy ending like me.”
Not only does she encourage women to go in for checkups, Sanchez supports the HPV vaccine and has given it to her children. The HPV vaccine protects women against the types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer and genital warts. The vaccine makes your body’s immune system produce antibodies to fight HPV should you be exposed to it.
The HPV vaccine is given in a series of three shots. You will get the second shot two months after your first shot. Your next vaccine would be four months later. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends girls receive the vaccine at age 11 or 12. No matter how old you are, speak to your health care provider about whether the HPV vaccine could benefit you.
For more information on HPV and vaccines, please visit the CDC website here.
To book an appointment with UT Physicians for a screening, call 1-888-4UT-DOCS.