January is Cervical Health Awareness Month

January 18, 2015

Shirley Smith (right) and her daughter Shelly

One year ago, Shirley Smith was preparing for a late-in-life hysterectomy. But as her Mercy doctor prepared her for the procedure, there was a roadblock. “He found stage two cancer in my cervix, uterus and in a lymph node,” Smith said. “I knew right away what caused it; I’d let some of my Pap smears go, so I got very behind.”

Smith, now 65, underwent several rounds of radiation and chemotherapy treatments over the last 12 months. “I could tell something wasn’t right. Now I regret not keeping track of my check-ups. I’ve seen the doctor more in the last year than I have my whole life.”

Smith’s story is common but often goes unheard. That’s why Cervical Health Awareness Month is so important for doctors at Mercy Hospital Springfield. “We have to reiterate that the Pap test works,” said Dr. Jay Carlson, Mercy Gynecological Oncologist. “If patients get that, we can detect the problem and treat it before it becomes a cancer. Unlike most cancers, cervical cancer can be detected in a pre-cancer state if patients are screened.”

According to the Foundation for Women’s Cancer, more than 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. Early detection can significantly cut a patient’s chances of developing the disease.

“I was scared and I’m not a fan of it, but it’s better to go in and get a Pap smear than to go in and be told you have cancer,” Smith said. “Luckily for me it wasn’t too late, and I’ve bought back time to spend with my daughter.”

The major cause of cervical cancer is HPV, or the human papillomavirus; about 20 million Americans currently have HPV, the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. For every 10 people, seven will have HPV at one point in their lives, and most will never know it.

“Seventy percent of high school students are sexually active before graduation, so early vaccination is important,” said Dr. Carlson. “Within the Mercy system, we have the full complement of personnel to facilitate screening that would start with their primary care provider. We also have specialty providers within gynecology that would further evaluate any abnormalities identified. We also have the gynecologic cancer expertise to treat those who are identified with a cancer.”

Mercy encourages people to know and follow these guidelines to protect themselves and those they love from cervical cancer:

  • Girls and women ages 9-26 should get HPV vaccine
  • Boys and men ages 9-26 are encouraged to get HPV vaccine
  • Vaccinate early; Pap test regularly
  • Women older than 30 should get HPV test along with Pap

Most adults have been infected with HPV at some time. An infection may go away on its own, but sometimes it can cause genital warts or lead to cervical cancer.

For more resources on cervical cancer, click here.