January is National Cervical Health Awareness Month, and the North Dakota Department of Health is reminding women of the importance of regular Pap tests.
Although cervical cancer is highly preventable through screening and other preventive measures, about 4,200 women die from the disease in the United States each year. Having a Pap test regularly is the key to preventing cervical cancer. About 50 percent of women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer have never had a Pap test, and an additional 10 percent have not had a Pap test in the last five years. Some women believe they can stop having Pap tests once they have stopped having children. This is not correct.
“According to the American Cancer Society, cervical cancer tends to occur in midlife. Most cases are found in women younger than 50; however, the risk of developing cervical cancer is still present for women older than 50,” said Barb Steiner, Women’s Way Clinical Coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Health. “That is why it is important for women to continue to have Pap tests until their health-care provider recommends that a Pap test is no longer needed.”
The main cause of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Most people with HPV do not even know they have it, because they never have symptoms or problems. Usually the body’s immune system will fight off the infection, and it goes away on its own. But sometimes an HPV infection does not go away, and this can cause abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix. If that happens, treatment may be needed. If left untreated, these abnormal changes can eventually lead to cervical cancer.
A Pap test can detect the abnormal changes in the cervical cells before they become cancer. If cancer does occur, regular Pap tests can find it early when it is easier to treat.
While routine Pap tests are the best means of detecting cervical cancer at an early stage, vaccines also have the potential to protect women from the disease. Two vaccines are now available for young women to help protect against HPV types 16 and 18, the two main types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. However, women who have been vaccinated still should get regular Pap tests.
“Unfortunately, many women do not get regular Pap tests because they are uninsured or underinsured,” Steiner said. “The good news is that Women’s Way, North Dakota’s Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program may be able to pay for their Pap tests and may also provide a way to pay for clinical breast exams and mammograms. Women’s Way is available to eligible North Dakota women ages 40 through 64.”
To learn more about Women’s Way or to see if you are eligible, call 1.800.44.WOMEN or visit www.ndhealth.gov/womensway.
To learn more about cervical cancer or HPV, visit www.cancer.org or www.cancer.gov.