January is Cervical Health Awareness Month

The month of January ushers in new year yet, in the United States, the month of January also serves for Cervical Health Awareness Month.

Accompanied by a teal ribbon, Americans use the month of January to raise awareness and screening efforts about the fourth most frequent cancer in women. In fact, around 500,000 women worldwide are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year and around 57% of those diagnosed can become fatalities.

Cervical health and cervical cancer

The cervix is a narrow passage that connects the uterus to the vagina, allowing for menstrual blood to flow from the uterus into the vagina. It also directs sperm into the uterus during intercourse.

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Before cervical cells become cancerous, they change abnormally, growing into irregular cervical tissues (dysplasia). These tissues can lead to the formation of non-cancerous tumors such as polyps, cysts, and fibroids. However, if left untreated, these tissues can further develop into cancer.

The most common types of cervical cancer are squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma refers to the squamous cells that outline the outer part of the cervix. Adenocarcinoma, on the other hand, stems from the glandular cells that line the passageway that connects the uterus to the vagina. The other rare forms of cervical cancer are adenosquamous carcinoma, glassy cell carcinoma, and mucoepidermoid carcinoma.

Cervical cancer risk factors

In an effort to ensure cervical health,  one needs to be conscious of the risk factors of cervical cancer. It is important for women to take heed on the following if they wish to protect their health;

  • An HPV infection (human papillomavirus). After being transmitted through sexual contact, certain types of HPV can infect the cervix. If left untreated, this can then lead to dysplasia which we know increases the risk for cervical cancer
  • Sexual activity
  • Smoking
  • Multiple Births
  • History of STIs (sexually transmitted diseases)
  • Oral contraceptives
  • A family history of cervical cancer

Cervical cancer prevention tips

While it is important for women to educate themselves on the cervical cancer risk factors, there also exists preventable measures that they can adopt.

1. Get a regular pap smear

A Pap smear is a screening test that looks for signs of cervical cancer. As cervical cancer rarely has no clear signs and symptoms, a pap smear is often the best way to detect it.

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During the procedure, cells are collected from the surface of the cervix and vagina. These cells are then later studied for any signs of abnormalities. It is advisable that women aged between 21 and 29 years old get a pap smear done every 3 years while women aged between 30 and 65 years old have their pap smears done, along with an HPV test, every 5 years. The HPV test examines one’s DNA for certain types of HPV infection.

2. Get an HPV vaccine

An HPV vaccine, consisting of a series of two or three injections (dependent on age), can help to protect one against an HPV infection- which is a huge risk factor for cervical cancer. While this vaccination will do little in treating an already existing infection, it can also help protect against genital warts.

The vaccination process is recommended for females aged 13 to 26 years old and males aged 13-21 years old.

3. Practice safe sex

Practicing safe sex will not only help in protecting against an HPV infection but a whole other host of sexually transmitted diseases and infections. This includes herpes, syphilis, and gonorrhea.

Practicing safe sex means always using condoms or diaphragms during any form of sexual activity. One study published in The New England Journal of Medicine revealed that women who engage in sexual activity with partners that always use condoms are 70% less likely to become infected with HPV. It is also advisable to remain in a monogamous sexual relationship or at least limit one’s number of sexual partners.

4. Quit smoking

As if you needed any more reason to kick this toxic, addictive habit.

In addition to its’ many negative health effects, one study found that women who are already infected with HPV increase their risk of cervical cancer if they smoke cigarettes or even if they are exposed to secondhand smoke.

There continues to be research done on how we can protect cervical health but it is our duty to raise awareness if we want to reduce the statistics. It is also advisable to live an active lifestyle filled with antioxidant-rich foods as this can keep your health up. With cervical cancer, prevention is always key.

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