Preventing cervical cancer

March 11, 2004, midnight | By Erica Hartmann | 19 years, 11 months ago

The American Cancer Society estimated 3,900 women will die from cervical cancer this year; however, the survival rates are increasing due to early screening.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) called cervical cancer "one of the most preventable cancers that affect women." Over the past 50 years, cervical cancer rates have dropped by over 70 percent. This is largely due to Pap tests, a relatively painless and quick way to detect abnormal cells in the cervix.

Pap tests, named after Dr. George Papanicolau, involve collecting a cell sample from the opening of the cervix. A technician then studies the cells under a microscope. The test should be taken every year. Certified nurse-midwife Eleanor Fisher of the Takoma Women's Health Center urges girls to get their first Pap test and pelvic exam by the time they turn 18, especially if they are in a high-risk category, which includes smoking cigarettes, teen pregnancy and multiple sex partners.

Cervical cancer is caused by the human papilomavirus, also known as HPV and genital warts. A Pap test can indicate an HPV infection as well as precancerous cells and tumor cells. The earlier a tumor is detected, the better the chances are that the woman will be cured.

HPV is the general term for over 30 types of viruses. It can be transmitted through any type of sex and, albeit rarely, sex play without intercourse. While most varieties of the virus are harmless or go away after about six months, HPV should still be guarded against. The most effective protection is abstinence. While the use of condoms during sex may also decrease the risk, condoms are not as effective at preventing HPV infection as they are at preventing other sexually-transmitted diseases.

For more information on HPV and cervical cancer, visit the Planned Parenthood website. Pap tests are available from any obstetric-gynecologic clinic or any of the Planned Parenthood health clinics and are covered by all major insurance companies. The Breast and Cervical Cancer Mortality Act of 1990 also gives the CDC license to give Pap tests to low-income and minority women.

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