The harsh truth about cancer is that ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. And when it’s ignored, it can also advance to a point where treatment no longer helps.
That’s exactly the case in the Netflix drama “Dead to Me” – spoiler alert – in which one of the main characters must face her mortality after her cervical cancer went undiagnosed and advanced to a lethal stage.
It may be a fictional storyline, but it shines a light on the importance of regular screening, says Amanda Ramos, MD, a gynecologic oncologist with the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute.
Here are three things that everyone should know about cervical cancer prevention, according to Dr. Ramos.
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Pap smears are the best and only way to detect cervical cancer.
“Screening with pap smears is one of the best and only ways to prevent and detect cervical cancer,” says Dr. Ramos. “Pap smears can detect abnormal cells and HPV (human papilloma virus) infection in the cervical cells, resulting in the detection and treatment of cervical precancers before they become invasive cancers.”
If abnormal cells or evidence of HPV in a woman’s cervix, they will show on a pap smear. The test is recommended every three years for women ages 21 to 30, and every three to five years for women between 30 and 65. From there, a woman and her gynecologist can watch for abnormalities or investigate further to prevent cancer from developing.
HPV causes almost all cervical cancer – but there’s a vaccine for that.
“We know that up to 98% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV infection, which is why we also recommend anyone who is eligible get the HPV vaccination,” Dr. Ramos says.
HPV vaccination, which is now available in single dose injections, is recommended for boys and girls at age 11 or 12. The CDC also recommends that anyone not vaccinated up to age 26, consider getting the vaccine as well.
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If you see these symptoms, get checked out.
While some early forms of cervical cancer do not cause any symptoms, Dr. Ramos notes that these signs should prompt evaluation by a healthcare professional:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding, including bleeding between periods
- Bleeding after intercourse
- Post-menopausal bleeding
- Abnormal vaginal discharge
- Pelvic, back or abdominal pain
- Pelvic pressure
“Cervical cancer will always show up on a pap smear, however, so it is paramount that women have routine pap smears,” she adds. “In its earlier stages, cervical cancer is more amenable to surgery and more easily cured.”