FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - January is the time of year set aside to bring awareness to cervical cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, however these numbers have decreased significantly due in large part to preventive care.

When cancer starts in the cervix, it is called cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is highly preventable in the United States because screening tests and early detection are the keys to early treatment and high survivability rates. There is also a vaccine to prevent human papillomavirus (HPV) infections, which is one of the leading causes of cervical cancer.

Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV, a common virus that can be passed from one person to another during sex. Although there are many types of HPV, some HPV types can cause changes on a woman's cervix that can lead to cervical cancer over time, while other types can cause genital or skin warts.

HPV is so common that most people get it at some time in their lives. HPV usually causes no symptoms so you can't tell that you have it. For most women, HPV will go away on its own; however, if it does not, there is a chance that over time it may cause cervical cancer.

Other factors can increase a woman's risk of cervical cancer, such as, smoking, having HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) or another condition that makes it hard for your body to fight off health problems, using birth control pills for five or more years, having given birth to three or more children, and multiple sexual partners.

The good news is there are several things women can do to reduce the risk of getting cervical cancer. The most important one of these is to have an annual Pap-Smear starting at the age of 21. If Pap test results are normal, the chance of getting cervical cancer in the next few years is very low. For that reason, doctors often do not recommend another Pap test for as long as three years.

For women 30 years old or older, requesting an HPV test along with the Pap test can be beneficial. If both test results are normal, five years is the recommended timeframe for the next Pap test, although regular checkups are still a good idea.

Women, aged 21 to 65, should continue getting a Pap test as directed by a doctor, even if they are no longer sexually active. However, women older than 65 who have had normal Pap test results for several years, or have had their cervix removed as part of a total hysterectomy for a non-cancerous condition, like fibroids, can discuss with their doctor about not needing to have a Pap test anymore.

Remember that prevention is the key to early detection and treatment. If you would like to be screened for cervical cancer or HPV, contact your primary care manager or call 907-361-5081 for an appointment.