Every year, more than 13,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer. In honor of Cervical Health Awareness Month, we spoke with Jill Purdie, M.D., FACOG, an OB/GYN in Georgia, to discuss facts about cervical health and learn more about cervical cancer.
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer occurs when healthy cells in the cervix abnormally mutate and reproduce rapidly. About 90% of cervical cancer is caused by human papillomavirus, more commonly known as HPV. The other 10% can be caused by many factors, including a family history of cervical cancer, a pro-longed compromised immune system, smoking and obesity. According to Dr. Purdie, the most common treatment for those who develop cervical cancer is a loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP), a minimally-invasive procedure that removes the abnormal cells.
Dr. Purdie shares that although HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI)—an estimated 80% of women are exposed to it—most women who come in contact with HPV will not develop cancerous cells and will clear the disease in two years.
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How can cervical cancer be prevented?
Despite this reassurance, Dr. Purdie emphasizes the importance of regular screening. There are several types of HPV, including 14 high-risk strains that are detectable through a pap smear. Among the high-risk types, two cause the highest rate of cervical cancer. “Most women with high-risk HPV don’t show any visible symptoms; abnormalities are identified on their pap smear. If caught early enough, we can treat the patient before it becomes cancer,” she says. Through early detection, 80-90% of cervical cancer is preventable.
In addition to regular screening, Dr. Purdie recommends parents talk with their child’s pediatrician about the HPV vaccine. Although parents may find it challenging to discuss a vaccine for their young child that protects against an STI, the vaccine is most effective when given before a person is exposed to the virus. The vaccine is currently approved for ages nine to twenty-six and is a series of three injections over six months. Even in the short time since it has been introduced, the vaccine has made significant improvements by now protecting individuals from five strands of HPV as opposed to two. For those who have already contracted one type of the virus, the vaccine can protect against the other types.
Why aren’t we talking more about cervical health?
Dr. Purdie says the most prominent stigma surrounding cervical health is the shame and anxiety felt about receiving treatment or even just talking about it. “With HPV, many people have concerns about the potential negative connotations with a diagnosis. But again, it’s estimated that 80% of women come in contact with the virus, so it shouldn’t be this way,” she says. Her hope for the future is that this thought process will go away, and more women will be open to having conversations. “I think pediatricians are doing a great job of starting this dialogue at a young age with the HPV vaccine. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s a discussion we need to have.”
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Dr. Purdie joined Northside Women’s Specialists in 2008. She obtained her medical degree from the Medical College of Georgia and then completed her residency at Memorial Health University Medical Center. She is a member of Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society, South Atlantic Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (SAAOG) and a fellow with the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Her clinical interests include contraceptive counseling, adolescent gynecology and minimally invasive gynecologic surgery.