What You Need to Know About Prevention, Early Detection and Treatment of Cervical Cancer

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), more than 12,000 new cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed each year. When detected early, this cancer has a very high survival rate. Michael L. Pearl, MD, FACOG, FACS, Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Medicine and a gynecologic oncologist at Stony Brook Cancer Center, wants women to stay informed on what they can do to protect their cervical health, as well as what options are now available for treatment.

What is cervical cancer?

This type of cancer forms in the tissue of the cervix, the organ connecting the uterus and vagina. It is usually a slow-growing cancer and is almost always caused by human papillomavirus (HPV).

Is cervical cancer preventable?

Cervical cancer is a highly preventable disease. That wasn’t always the case. Cervical cancer was once the most common cause of cancer death in women. With the introduction of the Pap test, a screening test that detects changes in the cervix before cancer develops, cervical cancer deaths dropped nearly 70 percent between 1955 and 1992 — and this rate continues to drop by 3 percent each year. Preventing it involves a three-pronged approach:

  1. Receive regular Pap tests.
  2. Vaccinate against human papilloma virus (HPV) early.
  3. Take an HPV test when recommended.

Is the Pap test the single best tool for reducing the risk of cervical cancer?

Yes. This simple test, done in your doctor’s office, detects abnormal cells that can lead to cancer.  The cells can then be treated before they develop into cancer. The key is to follow the guidelines for test frequency. The ACS recommends that all women begin annual Pap tests three years after they become sexually active, or no later than age 21. After age 30, women who have had three normal Pap tests in a row may be tested less often. This is something you should discuss with your doctor to ensure there are no other factors that may require more frequent screenings. In addition, your doctor may recommend an HPV test to check for presence of the virus. If the virus is detected, you may need to schedule more frequent Pap tests because HPV puts you at an elevated risk for cervical cancer. Because HPV is linked to cervical cancer, another useful tool is the new HPV vaccine; current guidelines recommend giving to teens before they become sexually active. Remember, when detected early, cervical cancer has extremely high cure rates.

What additional steps can be taken to reduce the risk?

In addition to following the Pap screening guidelines and the recommendations of your physician based on your individual health, you can consider incorporating these steps into your lifestyle:

  • Reduce your risk for HPV, which often is symptomless and can easily be passed between sexual partners. Factors that increase a woman’s risk of HPV include having sex at an early age; having many sexual partners; having a partner who has had many sexual partners; and having sex with uncircumcised males.
  • Follow safe sex practices, including using barrier contraception.
  • Don’t smoke, as smoking cigarettes slightly increases the risk.
  • Get vaccinated against HPV.
  • Strengthen your immune system.

If I am diagnosed with cervical cancer, what are my options?

As with most cancers, treatment options include surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy — all of which are available at Stony Brook’s state-of-the-art Cancer Center. The Center’s Gynecologic Oncology Management Team is the only academic subspecialty practice in Suffolk County. In addition to providing comprehensive multidisciplinary care for women with known or suspected gynecologic cancers, it also conducts research into the development and treatment of these cancers and educates healthcare professionals across the community.

What new treatments are available at Stony Brook?

Stony Brook now offers robot-assisted minimally invasive surgery using the da Vinci® Surgical System for staging and treatment of cervical and endometrial cancers. The system offers doctors increased depth perception and magnification, as well as the ability to use different instrumentation than in laparoscopic minimally invasive surgery. It also offers women significant benefits over traditional open surgery including:

  • Faster recovery
  • Fewer wound complications
  • Less postoperative pain
  • Better cosmetic result — four to five one-inch incisions versus the long scar associated with open surgery
  • Accessibility for a wide range of patients (including women who are obese) for whom open surgery might carry higher risks

To learn more about Stony Brook Cancer Center, visit stonybrookcancercenter.org

To make an appointment with a gynecologic oncologist, ask your doctor for a referral or call (631) 444-4000.

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All health and health-related information contained in this article is intended to be general and/or educational in nature and should not be used as a substitute for a visit with a healthcare professional for help, diagnosis, guidance, and treatment. The information is intended to offer only general information for individuals to discuss with their healthcare provider. It is not intended to constitute a medical diagnosis or treatment or endorsement of any particular test, treatment, procedure, service, etc. Reliance on information provided is at the user's risk. Your healthcare provider should be consulted regarding matters concerning the medical condition, treatment, and needs of you and your family. Stony Brook University/SUNY is an affirmative action, equal opportunity educator and employer.