January 27, 2022
Four decades ago, cervical cancer was one of the most common causes of cancer-related deaths for American women. The rate of fatal cervical cancers has dropped significantly thanks to advances in detection and a better understanding of the causes of cervical cancer. Yet, it will still strike thousands of women in their childbearing years and beyond, claiming more than 4,000 lives this year, according to American Cancer Society estimates.
That’s why in January - Cervical Cancer Awareness month - gynecologists and cervical cancer specialists urge women to come in for a screening – especially if they’ve delayed check-ups during the pandemic.
“Cervical cancer is different from most other cancers,” said Dr. Diana Aung, an OB/GYN on staff at Good Samaritan Hospital and former Chair of obstetrics/gynecology at the hospital. “It’s one form of gynecologic cancer that we can actually prevent.”
The widespread use of Pap tests several decades ago began to push the cervical cancer rate down. However, the much more recent discovery of the link between the human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer has been the biggest factor in reducing cervical cancer deaths. The HPV vaccine, now approved for use in patients (male and female) from age 9 until age 45, can help prevent most cervical cancers.
Dr. Diana Aung, Good Samaritan Hospital OB/GYN
“We know that essentially 99.7 percent of cervical cancer is related to HPV, and we know the virus is very commonly spread,” Aung said. “We also know that HPV vaccines work, so getting vaccinated is so important.”
Vaccinations and routine testing are even more crucial for women who have other health issues that may make cervical cancer even more dangerous.
“Getting your regular screenings is really important, but even more so if you’re immune suppressed,” said urogynecologist Dr. Katherine Volpe. “People who have had organ transplants, or are on immunosuppressive meds, or are smokers, will have a much harder time fighting off cervical cancer.”
While many women may have delayed their routine exams because of the pandemic, physicians and hospitals have taken a range of precautions designed to protect patients from exposure to COVID-19. At Dr. Aung’s practice, everyone who works in the office is vaccinated, boosted, and masked; patients are screened in advance for potential COVID-19 symptoms; and partners are allowed to participate by video/speaker phone.
It’s also important to understand that a Pap test is only part of a regular exam, and not the same as a complete gynecologic exam. While Pap tests are done every few years, a breast and pelvic exam should be an annual item on a woman’s health checklist. Mammograms are another important part of routine testing, and new technologies have improved results.
“Mammograms are more commonly digital now,” Aung said. “And 3D mammograms are much better for finding potential problems in dense breast tissue.”
Good Samaritan Hospital provides a range of mammography services, and was recognized by the Women's Choice Awards with their “Best Comprehensive Breast Care” and “Best Mammogram Imaging Center” awards. If a mammogram reveals a potential tumor that may require a surgical procedure, Good Samaritan Hospital is recognized by the American College of Radiology as a designated Breast Imaging Center of Excellence and is acknowledged by the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers as an Accredited Breast Center.
Cancer screenings aren’t the only reason women should have a regular gynecological exam. These visits are an opportunity for physicians to look for other potential issues, as well as for women to discuss their own concerns about their sexual health.
As women get older, for example, a number of issues can arise including vaginal discomfort, pain with intercourse and incontinence. In many cases, women don’t seek treatment because they’ve been led to believe these are a natural part of the aging process. While these conditions do occur more frequently with age, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing that can be done to alleviate them. There are many treatments available, from exercises and physical therapy options to office-based procedures, that can alleviate these conditions.
“Thankfully, there is definitely more recognition today of female sexuality as part of general health,” Volpe said. “I feel fortunate to practice in such a diverse community. I’m so pleased that regardless of age and cultural background my patients want to discuss female sexual health and function. If you are willing to listen and engage, women will talk with you.”