Dr. Rebecca Starck is an expert in obstetrics and gynecology with the Avon Women’s Health Center of the Cleveland Clinic Health System and a supporter of the Make the Connection campaign. The Campaign was created to increase awareness about the connection between cervical cancer and HPV. Here, Starck answers the questions women should be asking about cervical cancer.
Q: How many women die from cervical cancer each year?
A: Although cervical cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer, it still remains the second-leading cancer killer of women. In the U.S. alone, more than 3,000 women die each year from cervical cancer.
Q: Why are so many women still dying from cervical cancer, despite the fact that it can be prevented?
A: In many cases, reluctance to get a pap smear or pelvic exam stems from a woman’s fear of getting bad news or a bad diagnosis. In other cases, it’s simply because women either don’t have access to or the ability to get an exam, or they aren’t aware of how important these exams are for prevention. The truth is, getting a simple pap smear screening is the best and most effective way to prevent cervical cancer. Over 50 percent of women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer could have prevented it, but for one reason or another did not get a screening.
Q: What is HPV (the human papillomavirus) and how is it related to cervical cancer?
A: HPV is a common sexually transmitted virus that affects a significant majority of women; about 80 percent will become infected by age 50. Because it is a silent infection with no immediate outward symptoms, most women aren’t even aware that they have it until it gets worse, which is another perfect example of why screening is so important. While most HPV infections clear on their own in one to two years through the body’s natural immune system, there are some high-risk types of HPV, namely types 16 and 18, that grow worse with time. If left without treatment, these types of HPV can cause the formation of cancerous growths around the genitals and abnormal cervical cells can gather to form a tumor, eventually leading to cervical cancer.
Q: What are some signs that a woman may have cervical cancer?
A: As the disease progresses, women may notice abnormal vaginal bleeding that occurs between periods, after sexual intercourse or is longer and heavier than ever before; increased vaginal discharge; pelvic pain and pain during sexual intercourse.
Q: What are some current treatment options for cervical cancer?
A: There are currently a variety of treatment options available to women that depend on the severity and progression of the disease. When the cancer is in its pre-invasive stage, or stage zero, a number of treatment options are available including laser surgery to destroy abnormal cells, cryosurgery to freeze cancerous and pre-cancerous lesions, loop electrosurgical excision to cut away an area of abnormal cells or conization to surgically remove a cone-shaped piece of tissue from the cervix. When the cancer is in the Invasive stage, stages 1-4, radiation and chemotherapy are often used to prevent the cancer from spreading, and in extreme cases, a hysterectomy can be performed to remove the cancer, cervix and uterus.
Q: What advice would you give women in order to prevent cervical cancer?
A: The most important advice I give women is to get screened because that is truly the difference between diagnosis and devastation. If we’re ever going to eliminate women dying from cervical cancer, then they must get screened. Also, to learn as much as you possibly can about the disease, because knowledge is power. I use the acronym HEALTH to incorporate most of the advice I give. Health— monitor yours as closely as possible; Evaluation— get regular checkups; Avoid— smoking and other cancer-causing behaviors; Link— make the connection between HPV and cervical cancer; Talk— to others to help you realize you’re not alone in the fight; and Healthy Lifestyle— following a diet and exercise program to keep your body and mind the healthiest it can be is always a good thing.
For more information on the Make the Connection campaign, call (888)4-HPV-CONNECT or log onto www.maketheconnection.org.