NASHVILLE – January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and the Tennessee Department of Health is urging all women to get needed screening for cervical cancer in 2013.
Cervical cancer is a silent killer that strikes without symptoms or pain until the disease is in the most advanced stage. However, health officials say cervical cancer is highly preventable due to the availability of screening tests and the vaccine against human papillomavirus.
“Deaths from cervical cancer could be reduced dramatically through the combination of vaccination and regular Pap testing,” said Dr. John Dreyzehner, commissioner of the Health Department. “The survival rate is almost 100 percent for women whose cervical cancer is found at an early stage. All women should get periodic screening for cervical cancer and talk with their health care providers about ways to prevent and reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer.”
Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by infection with certain strains of human papillomavirus, a virus so common that about half of all sexually active people will be infected by one or more strains in their lifetimes.
HPV vaccines can prevent infection with the kinds that cause most cervical cancer. The vaccine is recommended for every woman younger than 27 and every man under age 21 who has not yet been vaccinated.
”The HPV vaccine is safe and very effective at preventing infections that can lead to cervical cancer and other kinds of cancer that strike both women and men,” said Dr. Kelly Moore, medical director of the Tennessee Immunization Program. “The vaccines work best when given well before sexual activity begins and are recommended for all boys and girls at age 11 or 12 along with other routine pre-teen vaccinations.”
The HPV vaccine is available from many health care providers.
Anyone younger than 19 years old with TennCare or without insurance coverage is eligible through the Vaccines for Children program to receive the HPV vaccine at state health department clinics. Even though the vaccine works very well, it cannot prevent every case of cervical cancer, so vaccinated women also need regular pap smears.
All women are at risk for developing cervical cancer, especially as they age, Moore added.
The American Cancer Society reports more than 12,000 new cases of invasive cervical cancer were diagnosed in the United States in 2012 and more than 4,000 women died from the disease. Screening and early diagnosis are the best ways to ensure a cervical cancer diagnosis is not fatal.
About half of the cervical cancers diagnosed in the United States are found in women who were never screened for the disease, with another 10 percent found in women who had not been screened in the past five years, according to health officials.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends a pap smear for screening for cervical cancer every three years for women ages 21 through 65.
Women ages 30 to 65 who want to lengthen the screening interval should get both a pap smear and be tested for HPV every five years, according to the task force's guidelines.
The Tennessee Breast and Cervical Screening Program is available in most county health departments and some community health centers across the state to assist uninsured women with limited income in getting pap tests, clinical breast exams and mammograms at no charge.