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ARTICLE Cervical Health Awareness

Cervical Health Awareness

Women learning about cancer risks, getting screened

By Wyndolyn C. Bell, M.D., FAAP
Vice President, Health Care Strategies

Millions of women are taking the opportunity to get healthier, visiting their doctors to learn more about the risk factors of cervical cancer and schedule a screening and/or vaccination.

Cervical cancer, which is a leading health threat to all women and is caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), occurs in the cervix, the lower, narrow end of the uterus. The good news is that it is highly preventable with proper screening and vaccination. When detected early, the disease is treatable, and women can live long and productive lives.

However, there is a troubling trend among women in the United States when it comes to Pap smear screening. In 2008, the latest data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of U.S. women age 18 and older who have had a Pap smear screening within the past three years was 82.9 percent, compared with 86 percent in 2004.

Several risk factors can increase your chance of developing cervical cancer in addition to an HPV infection, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). They include:

  • Smoking – smokers are about twice as likely as non-smokers to get cervical cancer
  • An HIV infection and/or chlamydia infection
  • A diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • Oral contraceptives (birth control pills for more than 5 years)
  • Multiple pregnancies (more than 3 full-term pregnancies)
  • Family history of cervical cancer

Following are several tips to help minimize your risk:

  • Talk to your physician to develop a proactive approach to gynecological health and cervical care
  • Quit smoking
  • Undergo HPV vaccination and screening to prevent cervical cancer or detect it early and begin effective treatment. The ACS suggests that screening begin three years after the onset of vaginal intercourse and no later than age 21. The CDC recommends that all girls age 11 or 12 be vaccinated.
  • Practice safe sex. Using condoms may reduce the risk of cervical cancer and HPV, but are not 100-percent effective.

To start on the road to good preventive health, observe Cervical Cancer Awareness Month by contacting your physician and visiting one of several health information websites, such as the National Cancer Institute, CDC and UnitedHealthcare's Source4Women, which offers comprehensive information about women's health topics, including cervical health.