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January 29, 2016

Be Part of a Medical Success Story!

by Amanda MacMillan

Cervical Health Awareness Month

We can’t leave the month of January without noting that it’s been Cervical Health Awareness Month -- a great time to take a closer look at cervical cancer, one of modern medicine’s most impressive success stories.

Cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer death in women in the United States, but rates of diagnosis and death from the disease have plummeted in the past 40 years. Today, it’s diagnosed in about 12,000 American women each year. That means many women are alive today thanks to medical advances against this disease. “The science has gotten better, but also more women are insured and getting their annual exams,” says Jill Rabin, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine and head of urogynecology at Northwell Health’s Long Island Jewish Medical Center. “Because of this, we have a better chance at catching precancerous cells before they become cancerous.”

What’s more, cervical cancer is one of the only cancers that you can actually prevent with a vaccine. Most cases of the disease are caused by a sexually transmitted virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). The HPV vaccine, which first became available about a decade ago, does a great job of warding off those problem-causing infections.

But there’s also bad news -- because 4,000 women each year still die from cervical cancer. “We’re doing well, but in theory we should be doing even better,” says Rabin. Fortunately, a few simple steps can help every woman reap the benefits of progress against this killer.

1. Stay up-to-date on your exams

Cervical cancer screenings work, but only if you get them, Rabin points out. Women ages 21 to 29 should get a Pap test every three years; women ages 30 to 65 can either continue with that schedule or get a Pap and HPV test every five years. It’s also important to see your doctor annually for a well-woman visit, she says. CareConnect members don’t need to pay a co-pay or coinsurance for these preventive visits or screening tests.

2. Consider the HPV shot for your kids

The HPV vaccine, for children and young adults, can provide up to 99 percent protection against this cancer-causing virus. It’s given in three shots over six months, and is recommended for boys and girls. (Males can’t get cervical cancer, but the HPV virus can cause other health problems for them.) CareConnect covers the HPV vaccine with no copay or coinsurance.

The ideal age for this vaccine is 11 or 12, but it can be given as early as age 9 and as late as 26. “It’s smart to have your children vaccinated at the early end of the spectrum, because young people develop antibodies at a higher level and faster rate,” says Rabin. “We give it to young people now so that they’re protected when they become old enough to be in a relationship.”

3. Know your risk factors

Did you know that women who smoke are more than twice as likely to develop cervical cancer compared to those who don’t smoke? Or that having a compromised immune system -- because of certain medications or illnesses, for instance -- can also increase your risk? If you have these or other risk factors for cervical cancer, you may need to be tested more frequently.

“I had a patient who lost her daughter on 9/11, and within two years she developed cervical cancer in her 70s,” says Rabin. “HPV can lie dormant for decades, but once your immune system goes down, those cervical cells can change and convert to cancer cells.”

You should also tell your doctor if you have a new sex partner, or if you find out that your partner has not been monogamous; this can increase your risk of contracting a new strain of HPV. “If your risk status changes, your clock should be set back to zero in terms of Pap tests,” says Rabin. “We are very good at stopping cervical cancer before it starts, except when people become complacent and don’t get screened as often as they should.”