Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
The number of women who die each year in the U.S. from cervical cancer has dropped about 75 percent over the past 50 years, thanks to regular screenings and vaccination programs.
Elsewhere in the world, cervical cancer remains a leading cause of cancer deaths among women. Here at home, recent figures from the American Cancer Society show that 13,000 new cases are diagnosed and about 4,000 women still die from the disease each year.
Sara Jordan, a gynecologic oncologist with Presbyterian Cancer Care, says these deaths are preventable.
“This should be a cancer that does not exist in the United States,” Jordan said.
She said 99 percent of the cases are related to the human papillomavirus, HPV, which is typically spread by skin-to-skin contact, most commonly through sexual intercourse. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that at least 75 percent of the reproductive-age population has been exposed to HPV.
“It’s highly prevalent,” Jordan said.
Some strains of the virus can cause warts, and other types can lead to cancer of the cervix, the narrow passage forming the lower part of the uterus. Jordan said the vaccine Gardasil 9 is 97 percent effective against nine strains of HPV that can cause these problems.
She said the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a CDC committee that provides advice and guidance on effective control of vaccine-preventable diseases, recommends that both males and females from age 9 to 26 get vaccinated. The ideal age for vaccination is before young people become sexually active, usually at 11 or 12 years.
Starting at age 21, women should be regularly screened using a Pap smear, a test that examines cells collected from the cervix. If the test are abnormal, doctors may test for a high-risk HPV infection. The next step is usually a copolscopy, a procedure in which doctors use a special magnifying instrument to examine the cervix.
Should the examination show abnormalities, a biopsy may be recommended. If there are continued concerns, this can be followed with a procedure to remove the bottom part of the cervix so the tissue can be analyzed.
The mean age of women diagnosed with cervical cancer is 48, though it can occur at any age, Jordan said. Early stage symptoms include abnormal vaginal bleeding, bleeding between periods or after intercourse, or post-menopausal bleeding.
In advanced cases, symptoms may include a malodorous discharge, pelvic pain, disruption in bladder or bowel function and unexplained weight loss.
The treatment for cervical cancer is a hysterectomy, an operation to remove the uterus, cervix and Fallopian tubes. In advanced cases, lymph nodes in the pelvic area may also be removed. If the cancer has metastasized, or spread, to other organs, the main treatment is chemotherapy, Jordan said.
Those wishing to get the HPV vaccination and Pap smear screening can call Presbyterian Medical Group Gynecology, 505-253-3000.If you have concerns about cervical cancer management, call Presbyterian’s Cancer Care Division of Gynecologic Oncology at 505-559-6511.