Managing Cervical Health

The U.S. Congress designated January as Cervical Health Awareness Month. With the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, congress is trying to raise awareness of the actions women can take to prevent cervical cancer.

Technological breakthroughs have led to a 60% reduction in cervical cancer deaths since the 1950s. Still, over 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and over 4,000 die of the disease in the U.S. each year. If more women received preventive gynecological care, these numbers could become even lower.

This article contains information about three important cervical cancer screening efforts: pelvic exams, Pap smears, and HPV tests. It also contains information on free and low-cost cervical cancer screening options available to Georgia residents.

What Is a Pelvic Exam?

A pelvic exam is often part of a well-woman visit, a checkup covered annually by most health insurance companies. During a pelvic exam, a gynecologist or primary care physician examines a woman’s pelvic region by using his or her hands to feel the vagina, uterus, and ovaries. The physician also uses a speculum to visually examine the vagina and cervix.

Pelvic exams are intended to identify cervical problems, as well as vaginal infections and other issues. But the CDC found that the number of women getting pelvic exams in the U.S. has decreased in recent years.

Experts at the America College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists used to recommend that all women undergo pelvic exams once per year. More recently, they revised this position. Pregnant women, women with a history of cervical problems,and women currently experiencing gynecological symptoms require pelvic exams.But for non-pregnant, non-symptomatic women, ACOG now recommends having a discussion with a doctor to make “a shared decision” about when to receive a pelvic exam.

If you are unsure how often to get a pelvic exam, you might consider opting to get one only when you require a Pap smear.

What Is a Pap Smear?

A Pap smear is often done as part of a pelvic exam. While a speculum holds the vagina open, the doctor uses a swab or spatula to obtain cervical cells. These cells are then studied for abnormality. The widespread use of Pap smears is the primary reason cervical cancer deaths have dropped so dramatically since the 1950s.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that women begin receiving Pap smears at age 21. Here is the Pap smear schedule they recommend by age:

•Ages 21-29: Pap test every 3 years

•Ages 30-65: Pap test every 3 years, or HPV test every 5 years, or both Pap and HPV tests every 5 years

•Ages 65+: Pap test only recommended if the patient has never had one or has not had one prior to age 6

Some women, such as those with a history of abnormal Pap smears or other medical issues, require a Pap smear more often. If a Pap smear comes back abnormal, the doctor might want to perform a colposcopy. During a colposcopy, doctors use a tool called a colposcope to look more closely at the cervix

What Is an HPV Test?

The Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, is a virus that can cause six types of cancers in men and women. More than nine out of 10 instances of cervical cancer are caused by HPV. For that reason, the CDC recommends that all girls and boys receive the HPV vaccine.

The HPV vaccine was not available when many adults were younger, so HPV testing is still important. Also, HPV is more likely to cause cancer in older women than in younger women. An HPV test can be done on cervical cells collected at the time of a Pap smear or independently. The American Cancer Society recommends HPV testing for the following groups:

•Women over 30

•Women who have had abnormal Pap smears

Low-Cost Gynecological Care in Georgia

If money is an issue, there are ways to get the care you need:

•Insurance obtained under the Affordable Care Act covers cervical cancer screenings at no cost.

•Medicare also covers cervical cancer screenings.

•The Georgia Breast and Cervical Cancer Program provides cervical cancer screenings to women in poverty. Contact your county health department to find out if you qualify.

•Federally funded health centers provide free or low-cost cervical cancer screenings. Search your location to find the health center nearest you.

•Planned Parenthood operates four clinics in Georgia. These clinics offer cervical cancer screenings on a sliding scale for uninsured and under insured patients

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