January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. Here’s something every woman should know about cervical cancer: It’s almost always preventable.

“Cervical cancer rarely develops in women who receive regular screenings for it,” said Loraine Nolla, M.D., FACOG, with Lake Regional Obstetrics and Gynecology. “And we can vaccinate our daughters and sons to protect them against the human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common cause of cervical cancer and a cause of other cancers, too.”

Learn more about these two highly effective ways to prevent cervical cancer.

Stopping Cancer with Screening

Most cervical cancers start with precancerous changes that gradually turn into cancer.

“Doctors can find these changes with regular screenings, treat them and stop cancer from ever developing,” Dr. Nolla said.

Screening always includes the Pap test and, for some women, the HPV test. Both tests are simple and fast and use sample cells from the cervix. The Pap test looks for cell changes and abnormal cells, while the HPV test looks for the virus that causes cell changes.

“Which test you need and how often depends on your age and health history,” Dr. Nolla said. “Your doctor can determine the best screening schedule for you.”

The American Cancer Society provides these general guidelines:

•Starting at 21 and through age 29, women should get a Pap test every three years. 

•Starting at age 30, women have a choice: Either get a Pap test every three years or get both a Pap test and an HPV test every five years.

It’s OK to stop testing if you’re older than 65 and have had normal Pap test results for many years. It’s also OK to stop if you’ve had a total hysterectomy — both your uterus and cervix have been removed — for a noncancerous condition, such as fibroids.

Taking a Shot at Cancer

There are more than 200 types of HPV. But two types — both spread through sexual contact — cause around 70 percent of cervical cancers. The HPV vaccine targets those two types.

“The vaccine is a tool for preventing infection — it can’t treat an HPV infection that has already developed,” Dr. Nolla said. “That’s why health experts recommend people get the shot before they become sexually active.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all children who are 11 or 12 — boys and girls — receive two shots of HPV vaccine six to 12 months apart.

Older adolescents who have not been vaccinated should still get the HPV vaccine. In fact, women up to age 26 and men up to age 21 can get the vaccine. People older than 14 need three shots in six months.

The vaccine also protects against other cancers, including anal, throat and penile cancer.

Women who have received the vaccine should still continue to receive regular cervical cancer screening and see their doctors for annual exams.

“HPV vaccination protects against most, but not all, cervical cancers, so continued screening is important,” Dr. Nolla said. “And we do more than Pap tests at annual visits. Women who prioritize their health will find time to see their doctors for this important checkup.”

Lake Regional Obstetrics and Gynecology provides appointments in Osage Beach and Eldon. Call 573-302-2764 to make an appointment in Osage Beach and 573-557-2553 to make an appointment in Eldon.

This spring, Lake Regional will open a new Women’s and Children’s Unit to meet a longstanding need for more women’s and children’s health care at the lake. To learn more, visit www.lakeregional.com/womenandchildren.

Additional sources: American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; National Cancer Institute; U.S. Preventive Services Task Force