Cervical cancer grows in the part of the uterus that connects to the vagina called the cervix. This type of cancer, which is typically caused by sexually transmitted Human Papillomavirus (HPV), used to be one of the leading causes of cancer deaths in the world. But, thanks in part to the improvements in detection and treatment, survival rates have greatly improved.
"Cervical cancer doesn't start as a raging, fast-growing, rapid-spreading cancer," Renfrow said. "It starts as something called cervical dysplasia, which is a shift in those cervical cells, from stone-cold normal to abnormal."
To detect the change in cervical cells, Renfrow suggests women have an annual well-woman exam and discuss what cervical cancer screening is recommended with their provider. Healthy young women, with a vigorous immune system, are typically able to fight low-grade cervical dysplasia and repair the cells themselves, Renfrow explained, but close surveillance is important.
Reproductive aged women are most at risk of contracting the virus. Early-stage cervical cancer rarely produces symptoms or signs. This type of cancer, in its advanced stage, can present with bleeding, or discharge from the vagina that is not normal, such as bleeding after sex, according to CDC experts.
The HPV vaccine is now offered to both males and females from the ages of 9-26 years old, but recently has been approved for administration as late as 45-years-old.
"The goal is to give them the immunity before they are ever exposed to it," Renfrow said. "Just like other childhood immunizations, our hope is that they are not exposed to for years to come, but because the HPV virus does cause cervical cancer we know that if we get them that immunity before they are ever exposed to it, that is the best way of them receiving the benefit."
Captain Brittany Brooks, a physician in the OB/Gyn Department at Winn ACH said an exam, which takes less than literal minutes a year, can prove to be lifesaving.
"I know people hate speculum exams, you feel like it's not that important and you can just bypass it, but pap smears are important," Brooks said. "Just like I tell my girlfriends about any issues they feel like are going on … 'go see your doctor, don't Google, don't ask your friends around you, go see your doctor,' that's what (we) are here for."
Due to a constantly changing culture of sexual practices, there is now a significant increase in oral pharyngeal cancers. These cancers of the throat, head and neck are devastating. For men carrying the HPV virus, it is often silent, but the vaccine can protect against some of the most common and virulent strains and protect them while also preventing them from passing it on to other people.
"I tell parents that we literally have a vaccine that could prevent cancer," Renfrow said. "That to me as a mother is a pretty powerful motivator. I can't protect my children from everything, and no vaccine is 100 percent effective, but to be able to give my child that protection, I just feel like, when I have seen some of these devastating cases of cervical cancer in women who are in monogamous relationships … it only takes one exposure and if that virus progresses and changes those cervical cells and it progresses to cancer before its caught, effects can be devastating to future fertility, quality of life and even life itself."
Brooks recommends talking to your primary care provider about your particular problem, by asking questions, identifying the virus early, and to intervene before the small problem becomes a huge problem.
If you are a Tricare beneficiary and need to make an OB/GYn appointment, please call 912-435-6633 today.