As a busy woman, my health and wellness makes it to the top of my priority list only at the beginning of the year when I'm thinking about my new year's resolutions. The new year offers a fresh start to make healthier lifestyle choices and focus on how we can reduce our cancer risk. January is Cervical Health Awareness Month and a reminder to all women to talk with our health care professionals not just about the causes and risks of cervical cancer, but also what we can do to prevent it.
Cervical cancer is a silent killer. Human papillomavirus virus or HPV is the cause of 70 percent of cervical cancers. While there are numerous strains of HPV, two strains of HPV cause most cervical cancer. Furthermore, more than 50 percent of women will contract the virus at some point in their lives without even knowing it.
Although patients rarely see symptoms until the later stages, problems can be detected through screening using a Pap test. Even though it has been used for more than 60 years, the test is still very effective for detecting pre-cancerous cells and is one reason an annual checkup is vital for prevention. Also, these HPV screenings can determine if you are at risk because of the specific HPV strands that can cause cervical cancer. Most recently, HPV vaccines have been developed for girls ages 9 to 26, and teen boys up to ages 21, to prevent the spread of the virus. Since the vaccine was approved in 2006, there has already been a 50 percent drop in the spread of HPV in young women.
While medical advances in the past 30 years have been encouraging, seeing deaths from cervical cancer drop more than 50 percent, there is still work to be done. It was estimated in 2013 there were 12,340 women diagnosed with cervical cancer worldwide; 4,030 of them died from the disease in the United States. Despite the medical advancements, cervical cancer is still the fourth-leading cause of cancer deaths in women worldwide. In Iowa, it was projected 90 women would be diagnosed with cervical cancer last year. While just being a woman puts us at risk for cervical cancer, you might be at higher risk if you:
don't get regular Pap tests;
have a family history;
have multiple sex partners;
have a history of smoking;
have used birth control pills for a long time;
were exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth (please see www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/DES for more information);
have a weakened immune system;
are overweight or obese;
Even if most of your resolutions have already fallen by the wayside, taking care of your health is a resolution to keep. In addition, learn not only about cervical cancer, but other preventable cancers, too. Talk to your health care professional about steps you can take to reduce your risk. Share this information with ALL the women in your life. If you would like additional information on cancer prevention, please visit the Prevent Cancer Foundation's website at www.preventcancer.org.
Barbara Grassley is the spouse of Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa and is a member of the Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program of the Prevent Cancer Foundation.