By Rachel Koonse, LMFT
Early on, there are usually no symptoms. And, when there are symptoms, one might notice unusual cramping or bleeding – both of which are usually passed off as a UTI. Furthermore, irregularities in women’s menstrual cycles are common, and that normalization often leads to ignoring menstrual abnormalities. It is typically only when more serious symptoms, such as weight loss, swelling, or bone fractures, occur that cervical cancer is diagnosed. At this stage, the disease is often more advanced, which is associated with a poorer prognosis.
There are only about 13,000 cervical cancer diagnoses per year in the U.S., categorizing it as a rare cancer. As is true with many rare cancers, there is a lack of knowledge and awareness regarding cervical cancer. And yet, it is the 4th most common cancer diagnosed in women worldwide, and it is almost entirely preventable.
The Human Papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted disease in America, with 43 million cases reported in 2018 (many of which are cases in teens and young adults). In fact, HPV is so common that nearly anyone who is sexually active will contract the infection if they aren’t vaccinated. In most cases, HPV resolves itself without intervention. But, in some cases, decades after exposure, HPV can lead to cervical, vulvar, vaginal, penile, or anal cancer.
Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV.
The good news is that we have a vaccine that protects against HPV.
With screening and vaccination, it is possible to eradicate nearly all cervical cancer cases. In a study published in February 2020, researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health projected that elimination of cervical cancer could occur in 2-3 decades. This process could be further expedited by increasing vaccination and screening rates.
Dr. Stephen Lee, a gynecologic oncologist at City of Hope, recently presented on cervical cancer for cervical cancer awareness month at CSC (visit our virtual library to watch his workshop). He spoke to the fact that HPV vaccination rates are low. As of 2017, only about 49% of adolescents received the vaccine. Dr. Lee posits that this may be due to lack of education around the vaccine as well as a stigma associated with it. Instead of presenting the vaccine as a cancer prevention tool, many providers lead with presenting the vaccine as an STD prevention tool.
We have a vaccine to protect against HPV, and thus, we have a tool to virtually eradicate cervical cancer. So it’s time we break the silence on cervical cancer! We must do our part to:
1. Spread awareness about the HPV vaccine as a cancer prevention tool;
2. Promote cancer screening practices, such as getting regular pap smears;
3. Refrain from overly normalizing abnormal menstrual patterns. If you experience abnormal bleeding, speak to your doctor.
Will you join us at CSC in breaking the silence about cervical cancer? Breaking the silence can look like advocating for your health by making an appointment for a pap smear, looking into getting your children the HPV vaccine, or simply referring a loved one to this blog post. Together, let’s break the silence and eradicate cervical cancer.
Burger, E. A., PhD, Smith, M. A., PhD, Killen, J., BE, Sy, S., MS, Simms, K. T., PhD, Canfell, K., DPhil, & Kim, J. J., PhD. (2-2-). Projected time to elimination of cervical cancer in the USA: A comparative modelling study. The Lancet Public Health, 5(4). doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(20)30006-2
Cervical cancer. (2019, July 31). Retrieved January 28, 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cervical-cancer/symptoms-causes/syc-20352501
HPV. (2018, August 23). Retrieved January 28, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/hpv/partners/outreach-hcp/hpv-coverage.html
STD Facts – Human papillomavirus (HPV). (2021, January 19). Retrieved January 28, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm
What are the Symptoms and Signs of Cervical Cancer? (2020, November 04). Retrieved January 28, 2021, from https://www.cancercenter.com/cancer-types/cervical-cancer/symptoms?invsrc=non_branded_natural_search_google