Your cervix is the lower part of your uterus—the part that connects the uterus to the vagina. If you’ve had children, you probably remember the cervix as an important indicator when childbirth was near—when women are ready to start labor, their cervix begins to dilate. Sometimes, the cells that line the cervix can begin to change, evidence as “pre-cancerous” changes, which could develop into cervical cancer if left unchecked. That’s why cervical cancer screening with a Pap smear and/or an HPV test is so important—it gives your provider the opportunity to catch pre-cancerous changes in your cervix early, when they are most easily treatable.
The following are some screenings and services available at Women First that help you prevent, screen for cervical cancer and treat some abnormal cervical changes.
The Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is extremely common—about one in four people contract HPV, and about 14 million new cases occur each year. HPV can affect the cervix, vagina or vulva (pubic area). Most people show no symptoms of HPV, and many cases disappear on their own in a couple of years. Most others respond to treatment. Some cases of HPV persist, however, and can lead to cancer of the areas affected. Every year, HPV causes more than 30,000 cancer cases in women and men in the United States. However, a simple vaccine can prevent more than 90 percent of these cancer cases.
Through this vaccine, you can significantly prevent cervical cancer if you get it before HPV exposure. The Gardisil® vaccine can prevent most HPV-related cancers when given to young adolescents at the ages of 11 or 12. The vaccine requires two doses, about six to 12 months apart. Women who didn’t get the vaccine at these ages can still benefit from the vaccine up to age 45. If you are 14 or older, you will need a series of three immunizations within six months. The Gardisil vaccine is available at Women First and through most pediatricians. For more information on the HPV vaccine, see the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) web site.
Pap smears are the most common way to screen for cervical cancer. A Pap smear is taken during a pelvic exam, when a few cells are scraped from the opening of the cervix and sent to the lab to analyze. Recently, guidelines for Pap smears have changed. While every woman should have an annual pelvic exam, a Pap smear may not be needed yearly. A Pap smear is not necessary until 21 years of age and is not usually needed after hysterectomy. Any time your Pap smear is abnormal, your provider will recommend additional testing as needed. Higher-risk women may require Pap smears annually or more often.
If you have an abnormal Pap smear, a common next step is a colposcopy. This is a more detailed look at the cervix, and allows your doctor to closely examine your cervix, vagina and vulva for problems.
The colposcopy is done right in our Women First office, like a Pap smear during a pelvic exam, with a magnifying instrument called a colposcope that can examine closely and allow us to biopsy your cervix. The procedure may involve swabbing your vagina with a solution to help highlight suspicious cells. Your Women First Care Team will let you know when you can expect results and what your next steps will be.
If your test results from your colposcopy are abnormal, we may recommend a Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure (LEEP) for further evaluation and/or treatment. LEEP is one way to remove abnormal cells from the cervix by using a thin wire loop, with an electric current passed through it, to cut away a thin layer of the cervix. This procedure takes only a few minutes in the Women First office. Your provider will insert a speculum in your vagina, like during a pelvic exam, and give a local anesthesia (a shot through a small needle) before using the loop to remove abnormal cells.