January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month
"Even if you have had the vaccine, you should still get regular screenings for cervical
cancer, as the HPV virus is not the only cause of cervical cancer." Photo by Cliff Booth
There was a time when cervical cancer was a leading cause of cancer amongst women. To encourage women to be more attentive to their health, January was named Cervical Health Awareness Month. Fortunately, both screening and prevention have greatly reduced the number of women being diagnosed with cervical cancer. However, women with disabilities are less likely to be screened for cervical cancer. They are often diagnosed at a later age compared to women without disabilities and later diagnosis leads to the cancer being more difficult to treat. Survival rates increase the earlier you find the cancer. Screening and prevention are key to decreasing cervical cancer rates.
Before discussing what you can do to get screened for cervical cancer, let’s review what cervical cancer is. It is a disease that involves abnormal, or cancerous, cells developing in the cervix. The cervix is the part of the body that connects the uterus to the vagina. A virus known as HPV (human papillomavirus) is most often but not always the cause of cervical cancer.
Fortunately, there is a vaccine for this virus called the HPV vaccine. It protects against the types of HPV that are most often the cause of cervical cancer and 5 other cancers. The CDC recommends the following vaccine schedule.
- Ages 11-12 boys and girls: HPV vaccine
- Ages up to age 26 boys and girls: HPV vaccine
- Ages 27-45, not always recommended but talk with your doctor.
Even if you have had the vaccine, you should still get regular screenings for cervical cancer, as the HPV virus is not the only cause of cervical cancer. According to the CDC, screening for cervical cancer should start at age 21. This involves a test known as a Pap test (or pap screening). For those ages 21-29, it is recommended that you be tested every 3 years. Once you reach the age of 30 and up until age 65, the recommendation is to have a Pap test every 3-5 years depending on your personal health history and healthcare provider recommendations. After age 65, talk with your healthcare provider to see if you should still be screened.
Check out this video of Cindy's story to see how important it is to get your screenings.
You may still have questions about the exam and what to do. Below are some common questions and their answers about how to prepare for a cervical cancer screening.
Q: How can you prepare for your cervical screening?
A: Wear clothing that is easy to remove as you will need to undress from the waist down. If getting a Pap test, avoid intercourse, douching, using vaginal medicines or spermicidal foam for 2 days before the test. (if you had sex, still go to your appointment but let your doctor know)
Q: What should I let the doctor's office know when I call and/or arrive for my appointment?
A: Inform the staff of any accommodations you may need. Inform the staff that you may need extra time for your appointment. Inform the staff that you may need to bring a support person to assist youIf you feel comfortable, let the staff know if you have had a prior experience that is making you nervous or worried.
Q: What if I don’t have insurance?
A: The Utah Cancer Control Program (UCCP) is a federally funded program that acts as a payer to cover the cost of breast and cervical cancer screenings and some diagnostic testing. Individuals with or without insurance can qualify for the program based on income and household size (based on 250% of the federal poverty level). To enroll, call 1-800-717-1811 and be prepared to answer questions about your breast and cervical history as well as income, family size, and some other general registration questions. This process takes about 15 minutes to complete. The tests can then be done through your primary care doctor if they are contracted with the program. If your provider is not contracted with UCCP, they can help connect you to a contracted provider. This program also covers breast cancer screenings For any questions, call 1-800-717-1811.
Click on this video to learn from a person with a disability about what to expect and how to prepare for a cervical cancer screening. Remember, cervical cancer can be prevented with screenings and vaccines.
What is Cervical Cancer? (NIH)
Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines (Utah Department of Health and Human Services)