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Healthy Living: What you need to know about cervical cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, it's estimated 240 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in Washington State this year.  Of those, it's estimated that 70 won't survive the disease.  January is cervical cancer awareness month and because cervical cancer is largely preventable and treatable if caught early, it's important we all know the facts.

Q13's Marni Hughes sat down with Dr. Brandi Shah with Pacific Medical Centers to get some important health questions answered.

What do you want women to know about cervical cancer and risks?

I think the most important thing to know is it's highly preventable.  We have had a robust screening program in the United States with pap smears for a very long time.  Forty years ago when cervical cancer was the highest cancers for women, it's now one of the least.

What are the guidelines for screening?

It used to be women would get screened as soon as they had their first sexual encounter and for every year after that and for the probably five to eight years, we've changed screening frequency to be every three to five years and not starting until you're 21-years-old.  Because young women and their bodies are still changing and developing it can often clear the infection that leads to cervical cancer which is the human papillomavirus infection.  So now it's ages 21 to 65 for a routine screening every three to five years depending on if you have pap screening or pap screening with HPV co-testing.

What is the connection between HPV and cervical cancer?

HPV is necessary but not sufficient to cause cervical cancer.  What that means is almost all cases of cervical cancer have HPV as a culprit that has caused changes to the cells that can lead to cancerous changes if they're not caught early enough.   There are hundreds of different types of human papillomavirus, there a few we consider high risk and are more likely to cause cancerous changes in the cervix and that's what we're trying to catch by doing a pap smear and HPV co-testing.

What age is the HPV vaccine recommended and why?

Currently the recommendation is to start at age 11 to 12 but you can give it as early as 9-years-old and it's approved for both young women and young men.  The rationale behind that is because we know the human papillomavirus is sexually transmitted we like to catch people before they're even thinking of having sex which you would assume for most 11 and 12-year-olds.   That way they can get the full benefit of the vaccine series and by the time they get to a point later in their life when they do become sexually active then they'll be at far less risk.

Do they just need one shot?

It's several doses.  So if you're 15 and older is a three shot series that can be completed in six months time and if you're less than 15, so 11 to 14, it's now a two shot series that can be completed in six months time and that's a new change as of the last year.

What else do you want people to know about risk factors?

Smoking has been a long standing risk factor for cervical cancer because of the connection to HPV, which is a sexually transmitted disease, having multiple partners, not using condemns can also be risk factors.  Also, for some women, although it's out of their control, some women who are immuno-compromised or have a disease in their body that's making their immune system low they can be more at risk at contracting cervical cancer as well.