MERIDEN — Was your resolution for the new year to be healthier? Women might want to start by scheduling a visit with a gynecologist.
January is Cervical Health Awareness month. Local professionals recently shared information about how to care for the cervix and the general reproductive system.
Cervical cancer is a particular concern because it can be fatal if not detected at an early stage, according to Dr. Xun Clare Zhou, a gynecologic oncologist for Hartford HealthCare.
One of the most important things women can do for the general health of their reproductive system is to have an annual visit with an OBGYN.
“Prevention is really key,” said Zhou, who practices at Midstate Medical Center in Meriden, The Hospital of Central Connecticut in New Britain and Hartford Hospital.
That includes getting the human papillomavirus vaccine, which is available to girls starting at age nine.
As women become sexually active or have children, being consistent with the annual visits is important.
In those visits, doctors do routine screenings for cervical cancer with a pap smear and human papillomavirus tests.
Pap smears aren’t recommended before age 20 because abnormalities before that age tend to go away on their own, Zhou noted.
Women don’t need a pap smear every year, but Zhou recommends seeing an OBGYN every year as there are many other things doctors check to make sure the reproductive system is healthy.
She explained that “even by age 75 or 80, when the cervical cancer screening is not as high on the priority list,” if women haven’t had cervical cancer, chances increase for other types of cancer such as uterine, endometrial, ovarian and fallopian tube cancers.
Women who have had children are at greater risk of getting cervical cancer, she said.
Zhou described the cervix — the lower part of the uterus — as functioning like a “bottleneck” for the uterus. When a women becomes pregnant, the cervix keeps the fetus in the uterus, then dilates and allows the baby to come out vaginally at the time of the delivery.
“It’s an important reproductive organ,” Zhou said.
If a woman has had children, the uterus and cervix can later experience issues such as fibroids and infections.
Abnormalities in the cervix in the early stages — called pre-cancer or dysplasia — have a simpler treatment. The idea is to keep the pre-cancer from progressing.
She said cervical cancer in stage one can be removed with surgery, but it’s a complex procedure. If it progresses to stage two or three, patients undergo chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
“It’s a very involved process that requires a lot of coordination from different specialties,” Zhou said. “It’s a pain to go through and it takes a toll on the patient a lot.”
Zhou said the routine visits also help younger women, as doctors will educate them about safe practices such as how to prevent HIV and sexually transmited diseases.
“If a young woman contracts HIV with unsafe practices, then they are at significantly increased risks for a cervical cancer, precancer of all of our cancers and even condylomas or worse,” Zhou said.
Dr. Vincent Pepe, of Vincent Pepe MD PC in Wallingford, said preventing human papillomavirus is a big help to cervical health. He said there is 80% prevalence of human papillomavirus in the sexually active population of the U.S.
Pepe explained that human papillomavirus contributes to the growth of abnormal cells in the cervix.
He noted the virus can be prevented with condoms and suggests using them even while using other types of contraception. That’s a measure people with more than one sexual partner should take seriously.Mental health perspective
Massiel Abramson, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Wallingford, explained that when people deal with parts of their body that feel more personal or things related to their sexual health, it can be “intimidating” to seek the help needed for it.
She said having a month dedicated to cervical health awareness is important because it facilitates conversations on the topic.
Although these conversations can be intimidating for parents and children, taking a moment such as when children get their human papillomavirus vaccine might be an opportunity to start to educate them on the topic.
“Not talking about it at all can actually create more harm than good,” she said.
Abramson said she suggests people who are shy about asking questions related to sexual and reproductive health to get information from books, Youtube videos and friends.
For teenagers who don’t know how to start the conversation with parents, it might be easier to start by talking with a school counselor, the school’s health department, or an extended family member. But it’s a good idea to circle back to a conversation with parents.
“A person’s first reaction might not always be the most supportive,” Abramson said, "but with time, people do come around and understand this is a part of life.”
More information can be found at https://www.nccc-online.org/, the website of the National Cervical Cancer Coaltion, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/dcpc/resources/features/cervicalcancer/index.htm.