COMMENTARY: January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month; here’s what you need to know

As a member of the bipartisan Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program of the Prevent Cancer Foundation, I want to share the following information as we observe Cervical Health Awareness Month.

Cervical cancer claims the lives of far too many Americans every year. An estimated 13,170 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2019 and about 4,250 are expected to die of the disease. In Texas alone, 1,290 will be diagnosed this year. But cervical cancer is highly preventable thanks to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine and Pap and HPV testing. Here’s what you need to know about this disease.

What are the risk factors?

Nearly all cervical cancer cases are caused by some type of HPV, a common sexually transmitted infection. You are also at increased risk if you are a Hispanic woman, smoke, have HIV or other health conditions that weaken your immune system, or use birth control for more than five years. Cervical cancer is most common in women ages 35 to 44, although it does affect younger and older women.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms, including abnormal or increased vaginal discharge, spotting at times other than your normal period, longer or heavier periods, or pain during sex, usually don’t appear until the disease has progressed to more advanced stages—when it’s more difficult to treat. Talk to your health care professional if you experience symptoms.

How can cervical cancer be prevented?

The HPV vaccine protects against cervical and other HPV-related cancers, such as vaginal, anal, throat and penile. Two doses are recommended for girls and boys ages 11-12 — when immune response to the vaccine is strongest. The vaccine protects against HPV strains that account for 90 percent of cervical cancer cases.

Even if you are a woman who has received the vaccine, you should still get a Pap test every three years from ages 21 to 29. From ages 30-65, the preferred way to screen is with both a Pap and HPV test (called co-testing) every five years. Studies have found co-testing more effective at detecting pre-cancerous cells than a Pap test alone.

Share this knowledge with the women in your life. Get screened. If you have children, make sure they receive the HPV vaccine to help keep them and others free of the disease. To learn more about cervical cancer, visit www.preventcancer.org/cervicalcancer.

Lorena Saenz Gonzalez is the spouse of U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen. She is a member of the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program.