Get screened for cervical cancer

In support of patient health, the Wiesbaden Army Health Clinic not only provides treatment for existing conditions, but also offers preventive medicine services, such as screenings for certain cancers. One such screening is for cervical cancer. During the month of January, the clinic will highlight cervical cancer screening to raise awareness about one of the most common cancers affecting women.

Cervical cancer is a disease in which abnormal malignant cancer cells form in or on the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. Cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women, but increased screening has helped greatly reduce the number of women who die from cervical cancer.

Like most cancers, early detection through screening saves lives. Early detection can also reduce the risk of fertility issues. Additionally, some pre-cancerous changes found through screening can be treated, so that cancer potentially never develops.

The biggest risk factor for developing cervical cancer is a history of having had an infection with high risk strains of the Human Papilloma Virus. In fact, HPV infection causes nearly all cervical cancers. Most men and women are infected with HPV at some point in their lives. It is so common because most people never know they have the virus and pass it along unaware.

Several strains of HPV exist, but types 16 and 18 cause 70 percent of cervical cancers.

Although there is no cure for HPV, there is an effective vaccine available. This vaccine protects against cancers caused by HPV infection through prevention. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, clinical trials have shown that the HPV vaccine provides close to 100 percent protection against cervical pre-cancers and genital warts.

For the HPV vaccine to be most effective, people should get vaccinated before they become sexually active and risk exposure to this very common virus. That is why it is important for boys and girls ages 11 to 12 to receive two shots of the HPV vaccine six to 12 months apart. Even if a child is older, they can still start the series, but it is best to be vaccinated before the age of 26. The FDA recently approved certain vaccines for patients over the age of 26, so those who fall into this category can speak with their health care team and insurance company about available options.

HPV does not always change the cells of the cervix, so not all infections mean a patient is at greater risk for developing cervical cancer. Because there is no way to tell if such an infection will cause abnormal cells to develop in or on the cervix, screening is done by one or both of the following methods. First, a patient gets a pelvic examination and a tool is used to obtain a sample of these cervical cells which are then examined under a microscope. This is called a Pap smear. The cervix can also be swabbed to test for presence of high-risk HPV. Finally, both tests can be performed simultaneously by performing an HPV “co-test” along with the Pap.

The key is to get the cervical cancer screening at the appropriate times and in the appropriate way based on a woman’s age and her history. Research shows that more than 50 percent of women who end up getting cervical cancer were not screened appropriately. Screening should start at age 21 and is offered until age 64. This screening is performed every three years if testing has been normal. At age 30, if both the Pap test and the HPV co-screening were negative (normal), the screening can be done every five years. If you are not sure how often or when you should be screened, talk to your health care provider.

Prevention is key. Vaccination and screening are the best tools to avoid cervical cancer.

The Wiesbaden Army Health Clinic invites women to schedule a well-woman appointment by calling the Appointment Line at 06371-94-64-5762 (LRMC) or DSN 590-5762. Patients can also visit 24 hours a day, seven days a week to choose an appointment that fits their schedule.