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Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women worldwide. Over 14,000 American women are diagnosed each year, and over 4,000 will not survive—including about 145 in the Washington, D.C., metro area.
This number is hard to accept when we consider that cervical cancer is among one of the most preventable cancers. Education is the key to prevention—knowing what to do and when. If we’re vigilant, we can save lives now…and in future generations.
The lowest part of the uterus, the muscular tube of the cervix, provides a very functional gateway. Menstrual fluids exit the uterus through the cervix, and it is via the cervix that sperm reaches an egg for fertilization. During pregnancy, the cervix cradles the developing fetus in place and opens fully during labor to allow the baby to emerge.
When cells in the cervix become confused and start to multiply out of control, the result can be cervical cancer. While a number of factors can foster this situation, a leading cause is the human papillomavirus (HPV). When a woman’s sexual partners make contact with the cervix, it can become readily exposed to a variety of sexually transmitted diseases, including HPV.
HPV exposure is, in fact, quite common. So common, in fact, that we assume sexually active adults will be exposed to at least one strain of HPV at some point in their life. Many strains are relatively harmless and purged by the immune system, with most people never knowing they’d been exposed.
Other strains, however, can be more troublesome—one causes genital warts, while others lead to cervical, throat and other cancers later in life. In fact, certain dangerous strains of HPV likely cause 99 percent of all cervical cancers, far surpassing other causes of the disease.
Preventing Cervical Cancer
Early-stage cervical cancer is rarely symptomatic. Typically, by the time symptoms appear—abnormal bleeding, bleeding after sex, pelvic and back pain, and difficulty urinating—the cancer may have progressed significantly.
So what’s the best strategy to prevent it?
• Get vaccinated! Since 2006, we have had access to very safe, reliable vaccines that protect against HPV. Because there is no way of knowing which strain you might be exposed to, or whether your immune system is able to handle it, the vaccine is the best way to avoid issues.
Vaccination is especially recommended for girls and boys before they’re sexually active. Getting your child vaccinated could save their life—or the life of someone they’ve not yet met—in years to come.
Adults, of course, can be vaccinated as well.
• Get tested! A regular Pap smear and routine HPV testing can uncover problems early, even before they become cancerous. At that stage, we have the best chance for successful treatment.
We routinely co-test—conduct the HPV and Pap tests together—which delivers a more effective result than the Pap test alone.
We collect a small number of cells from the cervix and submit them for laboratory analysis. The lab can confirm a cancer diagnosis or indicate pre-cancerous changes.
An annual Pap smear is recommended for women beginning at age 21. Both Pap and HPV testing are recommended for sexually active women after age 30. Because guidelines on testing can change, it is important to stay in touch with your primary care doctor to determine the best approach for your age and lifestyle.
Regular testing is the best way for us to catch disease early, and gives us the strongest chance to cure it successfully.
Dr. Ebony Hoskins has encouraging news: regular Pap smears and testing—and the HPV vaccine—can help prevent cervical cancer and save lives. Keep yourself informed! https://bit.ly/339KBV3 via @MedStarWHC
Diagnosis and Treatment
If initial testing or a lab study indicate anything out of the ordinary, we investigate further, generally starting with a colposcopy and biopsy.
In an outpatient procedure, we apply a liquid preparation to the surface of the cervix to highlight abnormal tissue, then use the colposcope to gain an up-close view of that tissue. We capture a small sample of tissue for additional lab testing: the biopsy. The colposcopy does not require anesthesia, and most patients experience minor discomfort during the procedure.
In most cases we can then remove any affected tissue during a minor surgical procedure. Most patients recover quickly with no significant side effects—and most can have successful pregnancies and deliver healthy babies after treatment.
The disease becomes more dangerous in cases where women don’t have access to proper screening or have serious symptoms due to delayed screening. Vigilance is key.
Don’t Delay Care
Remember: talk to your doctor about a regular testing schedule, catch up on any missed vaccines, and vaccinate your children. Here at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, women are in excellent hands with our full team of medical specialists that provide in-depth expertise and specialty care and can help streamline appointments and procedures across the Hospital network, as needed.
Remember, every woman has the power to avoid cervical cancer. Let’s do it together!