(CBS4)– January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 13,000 women are expected to be diagnosed this year. Unfortunately, 4,000 women are expected to die from the disease this year. Like so many cancers, early diagnosis and prevention are key.
“You’re going to see young mothers all the way to our seniors who are affected by this, every race, socioeconomic class and belief system,” says Dr. Allison Staley with Rocky Mountain Gynecologic Oncology.
She says the human papilloma virus (HPV) is one of the main causes of cervical cancer, so those most at risk are women who have not received the HPV vaccine, smokers, and women with a decreased immune system.
“85% of American adults will be exposed and infected with at least one strain of HPV in their lifetime, and at any given time, 50 percent of Americans will be infected with a strain of this virus.”
According to the CDC, in the past 40 years, the number of cases of cervical cancer and the number of deaths have dropped dramatically. This decline is largely the result of more women getting regular Pap tests, which can detect abnormal cells before turning into cancer.
“Pap smears need to begin at the age of 21 years old,” says Dr. Staley. “And make sure you ask questions. You need to ask your doctor, ‘did I get screened, what were the results, what does that mean and how frequently do I need to return for screening?’”
The HPV vaccine is also helping rates of cervical cancer drop dramatically. Dr. Staley says the vaccine means we could truly eliminate the disease in the future.
“Unfortunately, we have the opportunity to truly eradicate this disease, but yet we are still seeing 13,000 women each year getting diagnosed. Where we need to focus is on getting every eligible person vaccinated so we can truly decrease this disease risk and the prevalence of it.”
The CDC recommends both boys and girls get the HPV vaccine between the ages of 11 and 12. The vaccine, Gardasil 9, was introduced in 2006 and has minimal side effects.
“The HPV vaccine is actually not a mandatory vaccine in the normal series that children receive,” says Dr. Staley. “In Colorado you have to opt-in to get that vaccine, and so parents need to be making sure doctors are providing that for their children at the right time.”