By Jann Wiswall

The Cancer Services Program of Allegany and Cattaraugus Counties (CSPACC) is encouraging women to take the time this month to observe Cervical Health Awareness Month by scheduling an annual gynecologic exam with your health care provider.

“This is an excellent time for women to learn their risk and get screened for cervical cancer,” said CSPACC’s Madelyn Thornton.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health, cervical cancer is almost always caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a very common virus that exists in both men and women and is spread through sexual contact.

As part of most women’s routine gynecologic care, Pap tests and HPV tests are performed to check the cervix for any abnormal cell changes. There usually aren’t any symptoms associated with cervical cancer in its earliest, most treatable stages, so having regular Pap tests really is the key to prevention.

Dr. Nicholas Cromwell, an area obstetrician/gynecologist who practices at Mercy Hospital of Buffalo and has offices in Springville, says that most women should follow the guidelines established by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists:

Women ages 21–29 should have a Pap test every three years.

Women ages 30–64 should have a Pap test and HPV test together every five years, or a Pap test alone every three years.

Women ages 65 or older usually no longer need to have Pap tests unless they have a history of problems in the past. Women in this age group should act on the advice of their doctors.

In the United States, the Pap test has reduced cervical cancer rates by more than 70 percent. Those rates are likely to drop even further over the next generations with the creation of the HPV vaccine.

Dr. Cromwell says the vaccine, which is usually administered by pediatricians, should be given to both boys and girls at ages 11–12, long before they become sexually active. It is a strong weapon in preventing many types of HPVs. In addition to cervical cancer, HPVs can lead to vulvar, vaginal, penile, anal and oropharyngeal (base of the tongue, tonsils and back of throat) cancers. Certain HPV types also cause most cases of genital warts in both men and women.

Dr. Cromwell reports that he rarely sees cervical cancer cases among his patients anymore.

“Most cases occur in women who have never been screened, haven’t been screened often enough or did not follow up after learning of abnormal tests,” he said.

Thornton agrees, noting that “six out of 10 cervical cancers occur in women who have never had a Pap test or have not had one in the past five years.”

Both recommend that you talk with your gynecologist to schedule your next pelvic exam and Pap test.  If you are uninsured or underinsured, says Thornton, call 1-866-442-CANCER (2262) to find a free cervical cancer screening program near you.

For more information about cervical health, contact the Cancer Services Program of Allegany and Cattaraugus Counties at (585) 593-4839.