Every year, thousands of women in the United States are diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer, but unlike most types of cancer, it is nearly 100 percent preventable.

Hartford HealthCare’s Jocelyn Maminta recently spoke with obstetrics and gynecology specialist Dr. Dan Gottschall, vice president of medical affairs at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, on the importance of cervical health in recognition of Cervical Health Awareness Month in January.

“Cervical cancer is a type of skin cancer,” Dr. Gottschall said. “The cervix is the opening to the womb. It is surrounded by skin, similar to what we have everywhere else.”

The Pap (Papanicolaou) test or smear is a screening test performed in a doctor’s office that detects abnormal cervical cells. If abnormal cells are detected, a patient is either monitored or the cells are removed before becoming precancerous.

“I would say cervical cancer is 99 percent preventable because it takes several steps in a precancerous stage before it becomes invasive,” Dr. Gottschall said. “The Pap smear is the most effective screening tool to prevent disease in the history of the world.”

HPV or the Human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease, is the cause of nearly all cases of cervical cancer. HPV testing and pap smears can be done at the same time, typically during a pelvic exam as part of a woman’s routine health care.

“If someone has the virus, they’re more likely to develop a precancer and potentially a cancer,” he said. “If they don’t have the virus, then we can screen them at increasing intervals because they’re much less likely to develop that type of disease.”

A study recently published in The Lancet found that the HPV vaccine has reduced cervical cancer rates by nearly 90 percent. It is recommended that the vaccine be given to both men and women beginning at age nine through 45.

“The HPV vaccine allows your body to create a passive immunity so that if you’re exposed to the HPV virus, your body fights it before it has a chance to get into these cells and cause them to change,” Dr. Gottschall said.

Current screening guidelines recommend:

  • A Pap test every three years for women ages 21 to 29.
  • A Pap test plus HPV testing for women starting at age 30 every five years if results are normal.
  • A yearly pelvic examination is recommended regardless of the Pap smear or HPV test results.

“The most common thing that we see, if someone comes in with an advanced cervical cancer, is that they haven’t seen their doctor in more than five years,” Dr. Gottschall said. “The big takeaway message is to go see your primary care doctor or your gynecologist and make sure you get screened. Cervical cancer is the most preventable cancer because we can detect it early and treat it so it never gets a chance to become an invasive cancer.