We’ll be back with our regular posting tomorrow, but today, we’re featuring an op-ed from Dr. Sujatha Prabhakaran, MD, MPH, FACOG, our Senior Vice President of Medical Affairs/Medical Director, to mark Cervical Cancer Awareness Month.
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and it’s important to know that cervical cancer is preventable.
It is one of the few cancers that has two proven strategies to prevent – not just treat – the disease. In 2011, more than 12,000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer and over 4,000 women died from it.
Almost all of these cases could have been prevented if these women had had access to either cervical cancer screening via Pap smears or to the HPV vaccination – or both.
One thing may not know is that Pap smears don’t usually detect cervical cancer. What they detect are precancerous cells, cells that aren’t cancer yet but show changes that suggest they could become cancerous. Once we detect precancerous cells, we are able to provide treatments to either destroy or remove these cells and prevent them from ever becoming a cancer.
Women who have regular Pap smears (every 2-3 years is now recommended for most women) have a much lower risk of developing cervical cancer because, if they have an abnormality, it is often detected in the precancerous stage.
Another way to prevent cervical cancer or prevent precancerous cells from ever developing is the HPV vaccination. Most cervical cancers are caused by the HPV virus. Seventy percent of cervical cancer cases are caused by two particular types, 16 and 18, which are included in the vaccine. By getting the HPV vaccine before they are exposed to those viruses, women can significantly reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer.
Access to these types of preventive care is vital for the health of women.
While uninsured or under-insured women do have access to Pap tests and HPV vaccinations at safety net providers like county health departments and Planned Parenthood, this access will improve as women’s preventive health services will now be covered 100 percent under the Affordable Care Act.
I’m certain this will be a welcome change for women all over the country.