As a woman, receiving an “abnormal” test result from your OBGYN can be scary. Luckily, there are several minor reasons your test can come back as abnormal, like irritation, infection, or a mistake in the preparation of the test. However, in some cases, an abnormal Pap test result can indicate something more concerning — cervical cancer.
The American Cancer Society estimates that over 14,000 cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed in 2022. And of those, 4,280 women will die from it.
Fortunately, there are ways to prevent, detect, and stop cervical cancer early on. Like most cancers, cervical cancer is easiest to treat when caught early.
“The longer someone waits to get tested and diagnosed, the more severe the illness may be, and the more difficult it can be to treat it,” said Rachel B. DiSanto, a physician at Statesville Family Practice.
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer results from the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells which eventually form a tumor. This tumor can invade and damage nearby healthy tissues.
It starts in the cervix, the narrow lower portion of a woman’s uterus. According to DiSanto, cervical cancer can arise from the skin-like cells that line the outside of the cervix or the more hormonally active cells on the inside.
Cervical cancer usually does not cause symptoms until its later stages, making it crucial to spot early and take the steps to stop it from ever starting.
What puts you at risk for cervical cancer?
The most significant risk factor for cervical cancer is infection with a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is spread through sexual contact.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV infection is extremely common, and nearly everyone will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives.
Only a small number of HPV strains will cause cervical cancer, but nearly all cases of cervical cancer are linked to an infection with HPV.
Other risks for cervical cancer include a history of STDs, HIV, and smoking, according to DiSanto.
What can you do to prevent cervical cancer?
“The most important steps a woman can take to prevent getting cervical cancer are to stop smoking, lower your risk for HPV infection, get the HPV vaccine, and have regular cancer screenings,” said DiSanto.
Lower your risk for HPV
While there’s no definite way to prevent HPV, you can lower your risk of infection.
“The best way to avoid contracting HPV, a sexually transmitted disease, is only to have sex when protected, using condoms,” said DiSanto.
Get the HPV vaccine
HPV vaccination before the age of 17 can reduce cervical cancer rates by up to 90%, as reported by the CDC.
“The HPV vaccine has been proven to be a very effective method to prevent the spread of HPV and thus, the incidence of cervical cancer,” said DiSanto.
In addition to cervical cancer, HPV has been implicated in a number of different types of cancers in both men and women.
“The HPV vaccine is being called by some, ‘the cancer vaccine,’ and will most likely lead to a significant decrease in cancer rates over the next 30 years if most people choose to receive the vaccine series,” she added.
Males and females from 9 to 45 years old can be vaccinated against HPV.
Get regular cancer screenings
Screening for cervical cancer involves a Pap test and the HPV test.
“Screenings for cervical cancer and HPV infection are very important because early detection helps catch abnormalities before they turn into cancer, or catch cancers early while they are still easily treatable,” said DiSanto.
A Pap test can look for precancerous cells, cells that aren’t quite normal, but haven’t yet become cancerous. Treating these cells can prevent the development of cancer.
However, it’s important to note that not all abnormal Pap test results mean you have cervical cancer, as it is not the only thing that can cause an abnormal test. In most cases, if you have an abnormal test, you’ll be asked to repeat the test.
As always, you should speak to your doctor about which testing options are right for you, however the general guidelines for screenings are listed below.
You should start receiving Pap tests at 21-years-old and continue every three years, sometimes more often if there are abnormalities. Primary HPV testing is recommended every five years.
If primary HPV testing is unavailable, there is also a test, called a co-test, which combines an HPV test with a Pap test. You should receive these every five years.
If you are older than 65, your doctor may say you do not need to be screened anymore.
Can cervical cancer be cured?
Cervical cancer can be cured if caught in early stages before it spreads. Treatment in the early stages often involves a minor surgery and close follow-up.
However, a late-stage cervical cancer diagnosis can be more concerning and difficult to treat. If the cancer has spread deep into cervical tissue or to other organs, more extensive surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy may be needed.
These treatment options are not without long-term effects. So, make sure to start screening.
Dr. DiSanto practices at Statesville Family Practice, located at 310 Davie Avenue in Statesville. If you would like to schedule an appointment with DiSanto, please call 704-873-3269. DiSanto treats patients of all ages. New patients are welcome.