This particular phone call was like any other you might receive from your health insurance company reminding you to see your doctor for an annual checkup, get your flu shot, your mammogram, etc. Some people brush off these calls, figuring they’ll schedule their appointments when they have time. Others choose to take action right then and there. Shari, a CDPHP® member, fell into the latter group.
The call was from a CDPHP community health specialist who offered to assist Shari with setting up an appointment for a cervical cancer screening, commonly known as a Pap test. The specialist carefully explained the importance of getting the screening, and instead of delaying this essential step, Shari decided that there was no time like the present and picked a day and time to see her OB/GYN. After learning that the results of her Pap test were abnormal, Shari made several follow-up appointments, one of which determined that the abnormality was a precancerous growth. Fortunately, the growth was successfully removed, and Shari is alive and well. She concluded that she owes her good health to that phone call.
“It saved my life,” she recently told the community health specialist.
Cervical Cancer Defined and Its Risk Factors
Cervical cancer starts in the cells that line the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus. These cells don’t suddenly become cancerous; rather, they gradually develop precancerous mutations that turn into cancer. It usually takes several years for precancerous cells to convert to cervical cancer, but in some instances it can happen in under a year. These changes can be detected with a Pap test.
For most women, precancerous cells will vanish without treatment; however, in some, these cells can become cancerous. The best option for preventing cervical cancer is to treat all precancerous cells.
While certain risk factors can increase a woman’s chances of developing cervical cancer, many with these risks stay healthy. Risk factors include:
- Human papilloma virus (HPV) infection: HPV can be spread through skin-to-skin contact, including sex. HPV infections are common and most people’s bodies can recover without treatment; however, if the infection becomes chronic, it may eventually cause certain cancers, including cervical cancer. Although doctors believe that a woman must have had HPV for cervical cancer to develop, most women with the virus do not develop it.
- Smoking: Women who smoke are about twice as likely to get cervical cancer as non-smokers. Tobacco by-products are absorbed through the lungs and carried in the bloodstream throughout the body, sometimes ending up in the cervical mucus. Doctors believe that these substances damage the DNA of cervix cells and may lead to the development of cervical cancer. If you smoke, keep in mind that it’s never too late to quit. CDPHP offers resources that can help you overcome your addiction.
- Weakened immune system: The immune system is vital for destroying cancer cells and slowing their growth and spread. HIV, drugs used to treat autoimmune disease, and organ transplants may weaken, and in the case of HIV, damage the immune system and increases a woman’s risk for HPV infections, as well as cervical cancer.
- Chlamydia infection: Women who are currently infected with chlamydia or have had a past infection may have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer. As symptoms are often not present, most women may not know that they are infected unless they are tested via a simple urine screening. While there is no vaccine for chlamydia, treatment generally entails a round of antibiotics.
- Family history of cervical cancer: If a woman’s mother or sister had cervical cancer, her chances of developing it are two to three times higher. Some doctors believe that this tendency is caused by an inherited condition that reduces a woman’s ability to fight off an HPV infection. In other instances, women with a family history could be more likely to have one or more of the non-genetic risk factors described above.
Cervical Cancer Screenings Do Save Lives!
According to the American Cancer Society, cervical cancer can be found early, and sometimes prevented entirely, through regular Pap and HPV tests. These screenings can also detect pre-cancers so that they are treated before they become cervical cancer. Most invasive cervical cancers are found in women who have never had a Pap test or who have not had one recently.
When detected early, cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treatable cancers. In fact, thanks to the effectiveness of the Pap test, the cervical cancer death rate in the U.S. actually declined by more than 50 percent over the last 30 years.
CDPHP Covers Cervical Cancer Screenings
As part of its comprehensive benefit plans, CDPHP covers these life-saving screenings in full when provided by an in-network doctor, and members do not need a referral from their primary care physician. To find a participating doctor who offers Pap tests, use our Find-A-Doc search tool. For tips on how to use Find-A-Doc and get the most out of it, check out this Daily Dose post.
Our screening guidelines are as follows:
|First Pap test; Pap tests aren’t needed for women 16 – 20 unless there are special circumstances.||21|
|Pap test every three years, as long as the test results are normal.||21 to 64|
|Pap test every five years when paired with an HPV co-test.||30 to 64|
|No additional Pap tests needed, but pelvic exams are still recommended; doctors should make that determination. The exception is for a woman who had a serious precancerous change to her cervix at some point in her life.||Older than 65|
|Pap tests are no longer needed after a total hysterectomy that includes removing the cervix; however, vaginal pap smears may still be done after a total abdominal hysterectomy when cancer was the reason.||All ages|
Don’t Delay These Important Screenings
Take it from Shari, the CDPHP member featured at the beginning of this post: If she hadn’t gotten a routine Pap test, the precancerous growth may not have been detected in time to prevent a possible cervical cancer diagnosis and save her life. Cervical cancer screenings are quick, painless, and are most likely covered through your health insurance. Don’t wait. Call your doctor and schedule an appointment today.