Cervical Cancer: What you need to Know


Note from the editor:
As many of us immigrants devote large amounts of time toward understanding and surviving the maze that is the U.S. system, we might not have time to devote to our health. Breaking down, simplifying and summarizing that information is important. Every month Mshale will team up with Sara Chute of Minnesota Department of Health to provide educational health information to immigrant and refugee communities in the state.

Cervical cancer is cancer in the cervix. Each year an estimated 11,150 women in the United States will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and about 3,670 of the patients will die from it. Cervical cancer used to be one of the most common cancers, however in 1955, the number of deaths resulting from cervical cancer declined. This was due to a new procedure called the Pap test, which detects early cervical cancer cells. Statistics from the Minnesota Department of Health indicate that 168 new cases of cervical cancer were diagnosed in 2004 in the state, with 52 deaths that year.

Cervical cancer is caused by a virus called the Human Papillomas Virus (HPV). HPV is a very common virus and in fact, many women are infected with this virus. However, not all infected cases will turn into cervical cancer.

Cancer of the cervix occurs in the lower, narrow part of the uterus (womb) of a woman.  The uterus is the organ where a baby grows during a woman’s pregnancy.  The cervix forms a canal (opening) into the vagina (birth canal) leading to the outside of the body. The Human Papillomas Virus causes cells in the cervix to change, which sometimes can turn into cancer.  A Pap test and/or pelvic exam are tools that may help diagnose possible problems in the cervix and enable doctors to order additional tests, if needed.
“It is important that all women get screened regularly for cervical cancer.”

A Pap test is a procedure where a doctor scrapes the inside of the cervix and collects cells for testing. The cells are then analyzed for abnormalities and pre-cancerous characteristics. If the Pap test comes back abnormal, the doctor will recommend further test. Some of these tests include a culposcopy – a procedure where the doctors looks at the cervix through a binocular-like instrument – and biopsy, which is where the doctor takes a sample of the tissues in the cervix.

Every woman should begin having a Pap test when she becomes sexually active or if not, when the turns 21 years old. According to MDH, in 2004, more than 87% of women age 18 and older reported having a pap smear in the last 3 years. 
If cancerous cells are found in the cervix, your doctor can offer you several treatment options. The earlier the cancer cells are detected, the more successful the treatment. Because of this, it is important that all women get screened regularly for cervical cancer.

There are important factors for reducing your risk and ensuring early diagnosis. Risk factors that increase one’s likelihood of cervical cancer include smoking, Sexually Transmitted Diseases, multiple pregnancies, and family history of cancer. Some of these risks you can control, others you can’t. For instance, we can reduce our chances by adopting healthy habits like quitting smoking, having fewer sexual partners, and eating a balanced diet. But we cannot change our family history or genetics.  That is why getting a Pap test to screen for cervical cancer is so important – because you don’t know for sure if you’re at risk until you get tested.

If you would like to schedule your yearly physical or an appointment for your Pap test, call your clinic to set up an appointment. If you do not have health insurance, there are programs that will help you cover the cost for this very important appointment. If you would like information about these free programs or have questions about breast and cervical cancer screening, you can call the Minnesota Department of Health Sage Program at 651-556-0687, or visit http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/ to learn more.

Special thanks to Lillian Hang from the Department of Health in the Cancer Control Section for help with the writing this article.

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