The stars have aligned for our January resolutions series. Not only is January designated as Cervical Health Awareness Month, but I’d say that the cervix counts as an “often neglected body part” related to our sexual health or well-being, which was the criterion for this January resolutions series.
The good news about the cervix is that there really isn’t anything you have to do to improve its function—no exercise, no diet, no special creams or lotions. Basically, it’s four centimeters of tough muscle between the vagina and the uterus. It keeps a baby in safely tucked inside the uterus and then dilates when it’s time for the baby to be born. That dilation is what labor is all about, as though you could ever forget. It really has no sexual function, contrary to previous belief.
The deal with the cervix—and why we have this special month devoted to it—is that you can almost ignore it if it’s healthy, but if it acts up, as with cervical cancer, then you have a problem, Houston.
And that’s why you can’t completely ignore it. So let’s give the lowly cervix a little blog luv.
Times have changed with the sexual revolution and advent of cheap, easy, and effective birth control. There’s a whole lot more sex happening with more partners, for one thing. And with that has come a lot more sexually transmitted diseases. We talked about that at length, beginning here, but as it relates to the cervix, here’s the rub.
The precursor for cervical cancer is what we call SIL (squamous intraepithelial) change (or dysplasia in physicians’ lingo). That change is nearly always caused by human papillomavirus (HPV; there are rare occasions where cervical cancer isn’t HPV related), and HPV is pretty much ubiquitous among sexually active people (80 percent). Plus, it’s a virus, so once you have it, there’s no cure. Usually that’s no problem. In 70 to 90 percent of cases, a healthy immune system clears it up within two years—kind of like the common cold.
But as we know, viruses are wily, shape-shifting critters. There are about 100 strains of HPV, only a few of which are considered high risk for cervical cancer. About 12,000 women get cervical cancer every year in the US, and one-third of them die. This isn’t a huge number, but the tragic thing about cervical cancer is no one should die from it because cervical cancer is extremely easy to detect and treat. In women older than 65 with cervical cancer, 42 percent had never been screened.
Screening guidelines and testing procedures have changed in recent years, however, so it’s no wonder if you’re confused about what to do and how often to do it. There is now a test for HPV, which is recommended for any woman over 30. There is also the tried-and-true Pap test that tests the cervix for precancerous cellular change, or dysplasia. This test is recommended to start at age 21.
A woman with a history of negative results and no other complications only needs a Pap test every three years. Combined with a negative HPV test, the wait can be five years.
Obviously, if your cervix was removed during a hysterectomy (and you DO know whether or not it was removed, don’t you?), and if you don’t have a history of cancer or dysplasia, you are done with Pap tests forever. Even if your cervix is intact, until recently the guidelines advised that women over 65 with no history of positive Pap results no longer need screenings.
All that may be changing.
In a 2013 study of women between 35 and 60 found that some women who had been monogamous or celibate for decades began testing positive for HPV. The results suggested that these women had been carrying latent and undetectable levels of the HPV virus from sexual encounters in their youth that had spontaneously reactivated during menopause. This is akin to a childhood case of chicken pox returning later in life as shingles.
“As long as you are controlling these infections, your immediate risk of [cancer] is going to be low,” molecular biologist Dr. Patti Gravitt explains in this article from Johns Hopkins. “But if menopause, or just getting old, increases HPV reactivation, then we need to look at what this means for screening these older women who came of age during the sexual revolution and are much more likely to reach menopause with latent HPV than the postmenopausal women we have screened in the past.”
In the face of this surprising finding, the North America Menopause Society now recommends that “all women who have had multiple partners should not stray too far from their Pap smear or HPV test at menopause until we know more about the increased risk of HPV flare up at menopause.”
Even women who have had their cervix removed should be aware that rarely HPV also causes vaginal and vulvar cancers. So more than ever it pays to be aware of your cervical health—and your HPV status. Being postmenopausal doesn’t give us a pass anymore.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.