What every woman should know

The simple test that could save your life

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— The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2003, about 12,200 women in the United States will be diagnosed with cervical cancer. Additionally, about 4,100 women will die from this affliction this year.

Cervical cancer is a disease in which malignant cancer cells form in the tissues of the cervix. The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus that leads from the uterus to the vagina.

"Education and preventative action are the keys to reducing the prevalence of this common disease," said David Schaller, M.D., an obstetrician and gynecologist with the Steamboat Springs Women's Clinic. "By performing a simple and painless Pap test, we can detect the changes that occur before cervical cancer is present and intervene early."

The Pap test is a simple screening procedure that permits diagnosis of pre-invasive and early invasive cancer. During a routine Pap test, cell samples are collected from the cervix or the vagina if no cervix is present because of hysterectomy. The cells are then viewed under a microscope, where abnormal or precancerous cells in the tissues can be identified.

Schaller recommends all women have Pap tests beginning in their late teens to early 20s, or within one to three years of becoming sexually active. Women should talk with their doctors about an appropriate schedule of checkups thereafter. The doctor's advice will be based on such factors as age, medical history and risk factors.

Cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women. But because of the increased use of the Pap test, the number of cervical cancer deaths in the United States declined by 74 percent between 1955 and 1992. The death rate continues to decline by about 2 percent every year.

There are usually no noticeable signs of early cervical cancer. Symptoms usually do not appear until abnormal cervical cells become cancerous and invade nearby tissue. When this happens, the most common symptom is abnormal bleeding. Women who have Pap tests regularly have the greatest chance to detect and treat precancerous conditions before cancer develops.

Any invasive cancer that does occur would likely be found at an early, curable stage. The survival rate is significantly better when the cancer is found early, and the prognosis is markedly affected by the extent of disease at the time of diagnosis.

The outlook for women with precancerous changes of the cervix or very early cancer of the cervix is excellent; nearly all patients with these conditions can be cured. Researchers continue to look for new and better ways to treat cervical cancer but agree early detection and prevention is the best choice.

In a recent study, a new vaccine showed promising results in preventing transmission of human papillomavirus 16, which is thought to cause half of all cervical cancers. However, the vaccine is still in the development stages and has not yet been approved. At this time, the Pap smear is the best defense against cervical cancer.

Bonnie Boylan is public relations coordinator at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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