What to Know About Cervical Cancer

What to Know About Cervical Cancer

The cervix plays an important role in childbirth, but most women probably don’t think much about it when it comes to their health (even in January, Cervical Health Awareness Month).

While cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer deaths for American women, today the death rate has significantly dropped, thanks to increased use of the Pap test. This screening tests the cervix for precancerous cellular change (dysplasia). A woman with a history of negative results and no other complications should schedule a Pap test every three years beginning at 21. When combined with a negative HPV test, the wait can be five years.

So what is an HPV test, and why is it helpful in determining risk for cervical cancer?

Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV or human papillomavirus. HPV is a very common virus that’s passed from one person to another through sexual activity. Both women and men can be infected, and the virus can be present for years without any known symptoms. Along with cervical cancer, HPV has also been linked to cancer of the throat, penis, anus, vulva and vagina.

The best way to prevent cervical cancer is to stop it before it develops. Since 2006, HPV vaccination has been available to help protect the body against infection from the virus. The HPV vaccine is administered in two or three shots over six months to both males and females between 9- and 26-years-old.

“Although it’s the top cause of cervical cancer, HPV infections often go away without treatment and most aren’t linked to cancer,” said Barb DePree, MD, board-certified gynecologist and certified menopause practitioner, Holland Hospital Women’s Specialty Care. “In 70% to 90% of cases, a healthy immune system clears up most HPV virus strains within two years—kind of like the common cold.”

Routine Pap testing can be performed along with a simple and painless HPV test. During your Pap, ask your health care provider to run an HPV co-test to rule out high-risk strains of the virus.

What are some other factors that could raise your risk for cervical cancer?

  • Having many sexual partners is the highest risk factor for cervical cancer.
  • Smoking. “Women who smoke are about twice as likely as non-smokers to develop cervical cancer,” Dr. DePree said.
  • Having HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) or another health condition that weakens your immune system.
  • Long-term use of oral contraceptives (five or more years).
  • Giving birth to three or more children.
  • Family history. Women with a sister or mother who had cervical cancer are two to three times more likely to get the disease.

Does cervical cancer have any symptoms?

Cervical cancer typically doesn’t have any outward warning signs in its earliest stages. However, as the disease progresses, a woman may experience pelvic pain, abnormal bleeding, painful urination, unusual discharge, abnormal menstrual cycles, pain or bleeding during/after sex, anemia, urinary incontinence and back pain. If you notice any of these symptoms, check in with your primary care doctor or OB/GYN.

“By discussing your risk factors with your health care provider and scheduling your routine Pap screenings, you are building your best defense against cervical cancer,” Dr. DePree said.

Holland Hospital Women’s Specialty Care understands women have unique health concerns that change across their lifespan. To meet these needs at every age and stage of life, the practice provides personalized, comprehensive care—from annual well-woman exams and screenings to breast and bone health services to certified menopause support. For an appointment, call (616) 748-5785.

  • Barb DePree, MD

    Barb DePree, MD

    Recipient of North American Menopause Society’s 2013 Certified Menopause Practitioner of the Year for her exceptional contributions to menopause care, Barb DePree, MD, specializes in menopausal medicine, hormone replacement therapy and sexual health. With nearly 25 years in women’s health, Dr. Barb has comfortably answered all the uncomfortable questions of sexual health and the changes that occur as we age.

    After completing her Master's in Medical Management, Dr. Barb launched her own website, MiddlesexMD.com, that connects with people across the country and provides additional advice and products for patients. Dr. DePree obtained her Clinical Cancer Genomics Community of Practice Certification through the City of Hope. In addition to being a provider at Holland Hospital Women's Specialty Care, Dr. DePree is also part of the Holland Hospital Breast Care team, seeing patients at Holland Hospital's High Risk Breast Clinic. 


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    Barb DePree, MD

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