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Preventing Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer is not something that most people want to talk about. But it is a subject that women of all ages should know about. At one time, cervical cancer caused the death of many women. But all that has changed since the development of a simple test called the Pap test, or Pap smear. ("Pap" comes from the last name of the researcher who developed the test: George Papanicolaou.) The test can find and identify cell changes in the cervix that may indicate cancer or precancerous conditions. Today — thanks to the growing number of women of all ages who have routine Pap tests — fewer women die because of cervical cancer.
About the test . . .
This simple test, generally done in a clinic or a health care professional's office as part of a pelvic examination, takes only a few minutes. During the test, the clinician gently collects cells from the cervix with an instrument that looks like a small wooden spatula and then with a small brush called a cytobrush. The sample is then smeared on a glass slide to be examined by a microscope.
Before the test . . .
If possible, a woman should try to schedule a Pap test when she is not menstruating. Also, to ensure maximum accuracy, for a day or two before the test, a woman should avoid having intercourse without using condoms or female condoms. She should also avoid douching or using vaginal lubricants, contraceptive foams, creams, and jellies. These products, along with semen and blood, can interfere with the cells taken during the Pap test.
The test tells you . . .
There are between a half-million and a million precancerous and other abnormal conditions identified by Pap tests each year. An abnormal Pap test does not mean a woman has cancer. It may indicate abnormalities that may be caused by a precancerous condition, inflammation associated with the use of an IUD, vaginal infection, or a viral infection, such as one of the human papilloma viruses (HPV). Vaginal infections can make identification of precancerous cells a lot harder. So tests for sexually transmitted infections may be needed. If the results of the Pap test are inconclusive for any reason, another test is given, no sooner than a month after the first.
The connection between HPV, genital warts, and cervical cancer
You may have heard that a few types of the human papilloma virus (HPV) are associated with cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, and penis. By far, the most common of these cancers is cervical cancer; however, of at least 80 types of HPV, only a handful are associated with cervical cancer. About 90 percent of the women who have cervical cancer also test positive for this handful of HPVs. It's reassuring to know that the types of HPV that cause genital warts are not directly associated with cancer. All HPV infections, however, should be taken seriously.
Got all that? Well here are a few simple things that you can start doing today to help reduce your risk of cervical cancer:
*Put off having vaginal intercourse. The younger you are when you first start having sex, the more likely you'll catch HPV — a younger woman's cervix is more easily infected than an older woman's because it has more maturing cells. A younger woman also has had less time to develop antibodies — natural defenses — against HPV infection. (If you do have vaginal intercourse, always be certain your partner uses a condom or that you use a female condom.)
*If you are having sex, always have safer sex and limit the number of people you have sex with. Less exposure to HPV, lessens the risk of cervical cancer.
*Always, always use condoms for protection. While condoms may not eliminate the risk of transmitting the HPVs associated with cancer, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends condoms for risk reduction.
*Eat a diet high in beta-carotene and vitamin B including lots of yellow and orange fruits along with dark-green, leafy vegetables.
*Avoid cigarette smoking. The tax alone can kill ya, let alone the increased risk of cervical cancer.
When you first become sexually active — even if it is with only one person and you are having safer sex — start making it a habit to have a Pap test each year.
Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women worldwide, yet it is only the fifth most common in the U.S. This is because more women in the U.S. get regular Pap tests so precancerous conditions are found and treated early. Isn't it about time to follow that lead?