January marks cervical cancer awareness month, a time to shine a spotlight on the wide range of cervical health issues that affect thousands of women.
Approximately 12,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half of them have never had a pap test.
Cervical cancer is caused by certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease found in both women and men.
Doctors say 8 out of 10 people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives, and though most immune systems naturally clear it on their own, some cases in women develop into something far more serious.
Dr. Natalie Gould with the Women's Cancer Center of Nevada said a pap test is the only method for early detection of pre-cancer and cervical cancer.
"The way to prevent cervical cancer is to go to the gynecologist and get your pap smear - sometimes that involves an HPV test, too. Most women with cervix cancer in the United States have never had a pap smear at all or they haven't had one in the last five years," Gould said.
Cervical cancer symptoms are often mistaken for PMS or ovulation pains. Gould said it's hard to detect the disease because it does not show any signs until it reaches an advanced stage.
You can get vaccinated to protect yourself against HPV with a series of shots. Gardasil and Cervarix are approved vaccines by the Food and Drug Administration. However, the vaccines only have been around for a few years, so doctors don't have much information on the longterm side effects of these drugs, nor do they know how long the protection actually lasts.
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