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Limited Knowledge of Cervical Cancer Screening Shows Need for Increased Awareness

Contributed by Cancer Services Program of the Finger Lakes Region Health Project Coordinator Sparkle Wells, MPA, CASAC-Advanced

January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, a time when organizations focus on cancer prevention and awareness and often take time to encourage cervical cancer screening.

Understanding what cervical cancer is, how to prevent it, and when to get screened is key to cancer prevention, and recent research shows this knowledge is limited.

Cervical cancer starts in the cells of the cervix. The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus. The cervix connects the uterus to the birth canal. Cervical cancer usually develops slowly over time. Before cancer appears in the cervix, the cells of the cervix go through changes resulting in abnormal cells. These abnormal cells begin to appear on the cervix. If not removed, the abnormal cells may become cancer cells and start to grow and spread into the cervix and the surrounding area.

Preventative care that includes cervical cancer screening and the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine can help stop the development and spread of cervical cancer. According to a survey conducted in 2022 by the Prevent Cancer Foundation, many women are missing their cervical cancer screenings.

Of the 2,006 women surveyed (21 years of age and older), 56% have not had a cervical cancer screening since March of 2020. Of these women, 18% cited a lack of symptoms as a reason they have not been screened. Early-stage cervical cancer often does not produce any signs or symptoms. Screening can identify cancer before symptoms appear and the cancer advances to more aggressive stages, when it’s often harder to treat.

This survey also revealed that 51% of the 2,006 women 21 and older surveyed did not know how often they should be screened for cervical cancer. Women of average risk should begin cervical cancer screenings at age 21 and continue with Pap tests every three years through age 29. Women between ages 30-65 should get a Pap test alone every three years, an HPV test alone every five years, or an HPV and Pap test together (co-test) every five years. Cervical cancer screening can be done using Pap tests (also known as Pap smears) or the HPV test.

The HPV vaccine prevents most cervical cancers as well as some other cancers. Preteens ages 11 to 12 years old should get the HPV vaccine, but it can be given starting at age 9. The HPV vaccine is also recommended for everyone through age 26 years if they are not vaccinated already. Some adults up to 45 years old may decide to get the vaccination after speaking with their doctor about their risk for new HPV infections and the possible benefits of vaccination. The combination of HPV vaccination and cervical screening provides the greatest protection against cervical cancer.

The Cancer Services Program of the Finger Lakes Region (CSP-FLR) provides no-cost community education on cervical cancer, breast and colorectal cancers. CSP-FLR may be able to help if you don’t have insurance or recently lost insurance and are concerned about paying for a cancer screening. CSP-FLR pays for breast and cervical cancer screenings for eligible uninsured individuals ages 40 and older and colorectal cancer screenings for those ages 45 and older. They may also pay for any follow-up services and diagnostic tests, if needed. This project is supported with funds from the State of New York and is available to all New York residents.

You can reach the CSP-FLR by calling 1-877-803-8070 or email CSP@URMC.Rochester.edu. Remember, your health is your wealth.

Contributed by Cancer Services Program of the Finger Lakes Region Health Project Coordinator Sparkle Wells, MPA, CASAC-Advanced. The CSP-FLR is managed and facilitated by UR Medicine’s Center for Community Health & Prevention.