Catch cervical cancer before it starts

Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers affecting women. It’s estimated that in 2022, more than 14,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed. Fortunately, cervical cancer can be prevented with regular screenings that detect early indicators.

“I think the biggest thing people need to be aware of is that the human papillomavirus (HPV) leads to cervical cancer, and we can actually prevent it from ever evolving into cancer,” explains Dr. Tera Conway, M.D. who specializes in Obstetrics and Gynecology at St. Clair Health.

The best way to detect HPV in your body is through a physical exam. An OBGYN can swab the cervix, which is at the bottom of the uterus, for abnormal cells or other markers of HPV. The test is simple, quick, and one of the best things you can do for your peace of mind, because HPV is related to almost all cervical cancers.

Routine screenings help doctors find abnormal cells before they become cancerous. Symptoms like abnormal vaginal bleeding, heavy watery discharge, and pelvic pain could be symptoms of more advanced cervical cancer.

Another reason why annual exams are important for women is because abnormal cervical cells can be easily treated and managed if they’re caught early.

“Early detection is always your best bet. When detected in the pre-cancer stages, we have far more treatment options available to us,” assures Dr. Conway.

Doctors typically look for changes in your cells over time, so a Pap smear every 1-5 years gives your care team the data they need to stay on top of your health. Talk to your doctor about the right frequency for you, but factors include age, medical history, previous Pap smear results, and the presence of any other symptoms.

“Awareness months like January’s Cervical Cancer Awareness are important because, in some ways, we can actually stop this cancer from spreading by spreading the word about routine screenings,” says Dr. Conway.

Screenings will help your care team catch and treat any abnormalities before they advance to cancer. Once a cancer diagnosis is made, treatment may include things such as a hysterectomy, radiation and/or chemotherapy depending on the stage of the cancer when it was detected.

“The treatment options for cervical cancer are much more involved and potentially more difficult to recover from than the treatments for HPV. So early and regular testing is almost always the advice we give our patients,” says Dr. Conway.

Another option that decreases the chance of getting cervical cancer or pre-cancer is to take advantage of the HPV vaccine.

“Doctors are fortunate to have a safe and effective vaccine for HPV in our arsenal,” adds Dr. Conway. “The vaccine and relative ease of screening make this the most preventable of all cancers affecting women.”

Vaccines are typically given in childhood to both boys and girls, however more insurances are seeing the value in covering women up to 45 years old, who haven’t received it in the past. Other risk factors for cervical cancer include smoking, having a decreased immune system, and a higher number of sexual partners.

Cervical Cancer Awareness Month helps more people recognize the value of routine screenings and prevention measure, like vaccines. If you’re unsure about your risk of developing cervical cancer, or can’t recall the last time you were tested, talk with your doctor.

Dr. Conway earned her medical degree at Northeast Ohio University, College of Medicine. She completed her residency in Obstetrics/Gynecology at West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh, PA., and is board certified in Obstetrics/Gynecology. Dr. Conway practices with St. Clair Medical Group OB/GYN.

To contact Dr. Conway, please call 412.942.5380.