A study published in the journal Cancer was recently reviewed by CNN. It discusses the risk of dying from cervical cancer. The authors suggest that the risk of death from cancer should be calculated in a way that adjusts for women who have had a hysterectomy. They believe that this method of calculation is more accurate and that the risk of death from cervical cancer is actually higher than previously quoted.
In addition, the study:
- Verifies the previously known fact that minority women (particularly African American women) have higher mortality rates from cervical cancer
- Suggests the disparity is even greater than previously thought
- Does not suggest that the risk of developing cervical cancer is increased
- Recognizes the reality that most women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer do not have access to screening
The pap smear (the portion of the pelvic exam where a sample from your cervix is obtained and sent for pathology to look for abnormal cells) greatly reduces the incidence of cervical cancer in the United States. From 1955 – 1992, there was a 60% reduction in the incidence of cervical cancer.
Pap smears can reveal abnormal cells before they become cancerous which allows for an intervention that can prevent the precancerous cells from becoming cervical cancer. Recent advances in our understanding of the role of human papilloma virus (HPV) in the development of cervical cancer has streamlined screening protocols, and the development of HPV vaccines is expected to further reduce the incidence of cervical cancer in the United States. If we look at New Zealand, a country with an aggressive vaccine strategy, they are already seeing a decreased incidence of cervical cancer by as much as 36% (even great than had been predicted).
This article is particularly timely as January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. The take home message for our patients:
- Get your pap smear (it works!) – this study does not suggest that more frequent pap smears are necessary to prevent cervical cancer.
- If you are between the ages of 9-26, get the HPV vaccine.
- Avoid smoking – it’s a risk factor for the development of cervical cancer.
- Delay onset of intercourse and keep your lifetime number of sexual partners low (each of these is a known risk factor for the development of cervical cancer).
- Stay tuned for even more improvements in our ability to screen for cervical cancer.
Here are a few fact sheets on cervical cancer that you might find helpful: