January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, and that's the perfect time for women to schedule their annual screenings. Annual Pap smears give health providers a chance to notice changes in the cervix before they become cervical cancer. If you are a woman between the ages of 18 and 64, you should call 966-8782 or toll-free 1-888-388-8782 to see if you qualify for free Pap tests.
"Cervical cancer is preventable, and early detection of abnormal cell changes is important. Women who haven't had a regular Pap test increase their risk of cervical cancer," said Susan Suarez, Recruitment Coordinator for the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium Breast and Cervical Health Program.
One of the biggest risk factors for cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus, which is a common sexually transmitted virus that affects both women and men and rarely has symptoms.
"Almost all women will have HPV at some point," Suarez said.
"The immune system of most women usually will get rid of HPV, but some types of HPV will progress into cervical cancer. If caught early, these types of HPV can be prevented and treated. That's why it's very important to have a regular Pap test."
There is a new HPV vaccine that's starting to become available, and the vaccine is recommended for younger women ages 11-26. The vaccine won't cure existing cases of HPV, but it can prevent new cases of the specific types of HPV that cause cervical cancer.
Smoking is another common risk factor, with smokers getting cervical cancer at twice the rate of non-smokers. Tobacco smoke produces chemicals that can damage the DNA in the cells of the cervix, making cancer more likely.
For more information, contact the SEARHC Breast and Cervical Health Program at 966-8782 or 1-888-388-8782 (toll-free in Alaska).