Is Cervical Cancer Preventable?

>> Wednesday, December 12, 2012

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Cervical cancer can be preventable with regular Pap tests and pelvic exams. Unlike many cancers, cervical cancer can be detected very early, and Pap tests can detect if you are at risk for getting cervical cancer way before it is there.

The reason I'm bringing this up is because I was recently in surgery with my favorite Gynecological Oncologist (a cancer specialist for women) and we were very busy removing tumors from one patient after another - large tumors in the pelvis from the ovaries and the uterus. We were at the end of our day with one patient left who had been diagnosed with cervical cancer by a recent Pap test in her doctor’s office.

Cervical cancer is the type of cancer that grows from the origin of the cancer out until it invades the vagina, bladder, colon and moves up into the uterus. It can invade blood vessels and lymph nodes along the way, and that can help it to travel to other parts of the body.

It is important that we physically examine every patient prior to starting surgery and make sure all their vital signs are normal, like blood pressure, heart rate, and temperature. We do physical exams after someone is asleep (Exam Under Anesthesia - EUA) to determine if someone is a candidate for surgery or if they need to go directly for chemotherapy and radiation instead. Unfortunately, when we examined her, the cervical cancer had grown into her vagina and had become very large. We had to make the decision at that point to wake her up and recommend chemo and radiation as that would give her the best possible chance for a cure. Seems strange, but true.

I know we all like the idea of "getting the cancer out" and then chemo and radiation if necessary, right? I know the nurses in the room were really shook-up about this: “Wow, Dr. Boyd is it because she didn't get her paps every year? How fast did it get to this stage?” I know it is shocking and something we all worry about.

So could you have cervical cancer and not even know it? The truth is, yes, because it causes no pain or symptoms and is caused by the HPV virus that needs to be detected when you go in for your yearly exams and Pap tests. It cannot be detected on a blood test.

A Pap test can save your life. It can find the earliest signs of cervical cancer. If caught early, the chance of curing cervical cancer is very high. Pap tests also can find infections and abnormal cervical cells that can turn into cancer later on. Getting regular Pap tests is the best thing you can do to prevent cervical cancer. In fact, regular Pap tests have led to a major decline in the number of cervical cancer cases and deaths.

It is important for all women to have Pap tests, along with pelvic exam as part of their routine health care. If you are 21 years or older and have been sexually active, then you need a Pap test. Even women who have gone through menopause still need regular Pap tests. Even after a hysterectomy, paps and pelvic exams are very important as Vulvar, vaginal and anal cancer are caused by HPV, and with oral sex many women are getting oral and throat cancer from the virus.

Bottom line, put your health first. Find a doctor you trust and can talk to. You are worth it.

Be safe and have fun this holiday season.

Sincerely,

Dr. Susan Boyd, MD
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