January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month!
In this post:
- What is Cervical Cancer?
- Screening for Cervical Cancer
- Preventing Cervical Cancer – Protecting Your Kids
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is a disease where cancer cells develop in the cervix, which connects the uterus to the vagina. Most cervical cancer is caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Cervical cancer usually takes several years to develop from an HPV infection, and the infection can often be detected and easily treated before it turns into cancer. If the infection does turn into cancer, cervical cancer is more easily treated in its early stages. That’s why it is important to get screened early and often for cervical cancer.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Many symptoms of cervical cancer look a lot like the symptoms for other female reproductive diseases—heavy cramping, abnormal menstrual bleeding, pelvic pain, unusual discharge—so it’s important to communicate with your provider and get screening as early as possible. Your provider can only tell if you have cancer by performing testing, and the longer you wait, the less likely your treatment will be successful.
What is cervical cancer screening?
Cervical cancer screening is performed using either HPV testing or a pap smear, or both together. Women ages 21 to 29 years old should have a pap smear every 3 years. Women aged 30 to 65 years old should have an HPV or combination HPV/pap test every 5 years.
Both tests are performed by taking a sample of cells from your cervix with a soft brush or scraping device. You’ll be asked to undress from at least the waist down and lie back on an exam table with your knees bent and your feet propped up on supports. Your provider will first insert a device called a speculum, which holds apart the vaginal walls, so your provider can take the sample from your cervix. The speculum can feel uncomfortable, as though there is pressure in your pelvic area, but most women do not find the test painful.
What happens if my test is abnormal / positive?
If your pap smear is abnormal or your lab test finds an HPV infection, your provider might recommend you get a colposcopy or a biopsy, or both together. A colposcopy is a procedure where your doctor uses a special magnifying lens called a colposcope to take a closer look at your cervix and see if you have any cancer cells. Often, a biopsy is done at the same time—that’s where your doctor takes another sample of any suspicious cells to examine under a microscope.
Sometimes, your provider will find cells that aren’t cancer yet but might become cancer in the future—called precancerous cells. In this case, you may need to have the cell tissue removed, and then get screening or colposcopies more often to ensure no more cells appear. If your provider finds cancer cells, you may need more testing before treatment, and you may be referred to a specialist.
Where can I go for cervical cancer screening?
Your primary care provider or a gynecologist can perform pap testing and HPV testing. We perform both of these tests at Interior Community Health Center, in our Fairbanks and Healy locations.
How much does cervical cancer screening cost?
It all depends on where you go! The short answer is that most insurances cover women’s annual health exams—and the tests that go with them—at little to no cost to you. Some practices (like ours) post their standard fees online, so you can get an idea of how much your wellness visit might cost if you don’t have insurance. If cost is a concern, we recommend coming to a community health center (like us!) and talking to us about your income to see if you qualify for a sliding fee discount to greatly reduce the cost of your care, whether or not you have insurance.
At Interior Community Health Center, we also participate in the Alaska Breast & Cervical Screening Assistance Program, also known as Ladies First. This program provides free pap tests and mammograms if you qualify. We will help you enroll and determine if you qualify, perform your pap test, and coordinate a mammogram with an appropriate provider.
Preventing Cervical Cancer – Protecting Your Kids
The most effective way to avoid cervical cancer is to avoid HPV infection. There are several vaccines that can help prevent the most common kinds of HPV. These vaccines work best when given around the ages of 11 or 12 years old. HPV vaccines can also be given between the ages of 15 and 26, if you miss the earlier doses. Talk to your family doctor about your child’s vaccine schedule to learn the current recommendations for their age.
HPV vaccination isn’t just for girls, either. It’s just as important for your boys to be vaccinated, because HPV can be passed to sexual partners during intercourse, and also causes other types of cancers that men can get.
Where can I take my child for the HPV vaccine?
Your child’s primary care doctor, family medicine doctor, or pediatrician can administer the vaccine. We perform this vaccination at Interior Community Health Center. Some pharmacies also carry this vaccine.
How much does the HPV vaccine cost?
Like screening, it all depends on where you go. Good news—most health insurance plans cover routine vaccinations, including HPV. Also, the Vaccines for Children program is available to help cover the cost of vaccines for your child. Interior Community Health Center participates in the Vaccines for Children program and can cover your child’s vaccines at no cost to you if your child is under 19 years old and is one of the following:
- American Indian or Alaska Native
- Underinsured (has health insurance, but doesn’t cover the vaccine entirely)
Schedule your cancer screening or your child's vaccination today!
If you're already a patient with us, you can go to our patient portal to schedule online. If not, give us a call at 907-455-4567, option 1, to register and make your appointment.