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Hpv & Cervical Cancer - What Every Woman Should Know

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HPV & Cervical Cancer - What Every Woman Should Know

I was eighteen years old when I had my first abnormal pap smear. I received a call from my OB/GYN's office and was informed that I had the Human Papilloma Virus show up on my pap smear. This was the first pap smear I had ever had, and I was terrified. The news got worse. I researched this virus and learned that it was actually a sexually transmitted disease that could either cause cervical cancer, or genital warts! I didn't understand, I had been with my boyfriend for five years and he was my first partner. How could I have contracted a sexually transmitted disease?

I had a biopsy done to test my cervix for cancer. The results were normal, and I was told I would need to have a pap smear done every three months. I followed the doctor's orders, and within six months had a normal pap smear. At that point, I was nineteen years old. Things resolved and my annual pap smears were normal. That was up until a year ago.

Once again, I had an abnormal pap smear. This time however, I was 30. The same procedure was followed, another biopsy of the cervix. This showed no invasive cancer. Three months later I had yet another abnormal reading. This time the results were worse. I was puzzled, and I didn't understand why after eleven years my problem came back. After researching the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and cervical cancer, I finally found the answers to my questions.

The Boston Women's Health Book Collective, authors of Our Bodies, Ourselves indicates that cervical cancer is the second most common cancer of all women, and the most common cancer in younger women. Women between the ages of 35-55 are the highest group diagnosed. This type of cancer has been linked to the HPV virus. Other risk factors of cervical cancer include the younger your age of your first sexual experience, and the number of sexual partners one has. (634).

Cervical cancer can be prevented and treated early by finding pre-cancerous cell changes within the cervix. These cell changes can be found during routine pap smear exams. A pap smear is an exam where a medical instrument called a speculum is inserted into the vagina. The provider then collects cells from the cervix by gently swabbing it with a cotton swab. This procedure is quick and minimally painful. Some women experience no pain at all.

The cells are then sent out to a laboratory for testing. This generally takes two weeks. Most labs use the Bethesda System SIL to measure the amount of cell changes, if any. This system measures "normal" at one end of the chart, to "invasive cancer" at the other end. Generally it is difficult to determine the stage or grade of cell changes which occur. This often means diagnosis and treatment are difficult to make. (623).

The Boston Women's Health Collective has estimated that 40% of all women tested will have at least one abnormal pap smear within their lifetime. Therefore it is recommended that women of all ages receive annual pap smears to find any pre-cancerous changes before they become invasive. (624).

Recommendations:

The American Cancer Society has made recommendations as to when women should be tested. They are as follows:

All women should begin having the Pap test about 3 years after they start having sex (vaginal intercourse), but no later than 21 years of age.

The test should be done every year if the regular Pap test is used, or every 2 to 3 years if the newer liquid-based Pap test is used. Either test is OK.

Beginning at age 30, women who have had 3 normal test results in a row may get the test every 2 to 3 years. Another option for women over 30 is to have one of the Pap tests every 3 years PLUS the HPV DNA test.

Women who have certain risk factors (HIV infection, weakened immune system) should have a Pap test every year.

Women 70 years of age or older who have had 3 or more normal tests in a row (and no abnormal tests in the last ten years) may choose to stop having the test. But women who have had cervical cancer or who have other risk factors should keep on having the test as long as they are in good health.

Women who have had a total hysterectomy (removal of the uterus and cervix) for reasons other than having cancer or a pre-cancerous lesion may also choose to stop having the test.

(Courtesy of the American Cancer Society - www.cancer.org)

Routine pap smear testing is critical to finding changes to the cervix before cancer begins to develop. There are generally no symptoms for cervical cancer and the HPV virus is not visible. HPV initially presents with small, painless lesions on the cervix. Although some women report spotting between periods, or bleeding during intercourse prior to an abnormal pap, these are usually the only symptoms noted and go undiagnosed for a period of time.

What is HPV?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, HPV or Human Papilloma Virus is the name of a group of viruses that includes more than 100 different types. Thirty of these types are sexually transmitted. The virus can infect the genital area of men and women including the skin of the penis, vulva, anus, and the linings of the vagina, cervix or rectum. It is spread by sexual contact with an infected person. It may take several months or years for cervical lesions to develop. There are no common symptoms and HPV often goes undiagnosed for many years. Certain types of HPV are associated with cervical cancer, and other strains of HPV can cause genital warts. ("STD Facts").

Approximately 20 million people are now infected with HPV. It is estimated that at least 50% of men and women will acquire the HPV infection at one point in their lives. By the age of 50, 80% of women have tested positive for the HPV infection. Each year, 6.2 million Americans are diagnosed with a new HPV infection. ("STD Facts").

The HPV virus lives in the skin or mucous membranes. Many people do not know they are infected, as there are generally no signs or symptoms. These infected individuals can transmit the virus to their sex partner. Pregnant women infected with HPV can pass this virus onto her baby during a vaginal delivery, but this is very

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