by K. MICHELE TRICE
Sponsored by Central Florida Health Care
January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, making cervical cancer education especially important this month.
Typically, the cells of the cervix go through changes before cancer appears in the cervical tissue. That’s why prevention and early screening are key components of women’s health care.
Ruthie Almonte Ceron, a women’s health nurse practitioner at Central Florida Health Care’s Lakeland location, says the most important point to remember is that “prevention is the key.”
“That is always the best way to go,” she says. “The earlier you start screening, the earlier you can treat or prevent it.”
Almost all cervical cancer cases (99 percent) are linked to infection with human papillomaviruses (HPV), an extremely common virus transmitted through sexual contact.
“Anyone with a cervix is at risk,” Almonte Ceron says, going on to suggest proactive measures.
Among the most important: Screening should begin at age 21 or after an individual has been sexually active for the first time.
The best tool for screening is the Pap smear, a procedure in which a doctor — typically a gynecologist — collects cells from the cervix.
“While there may be some discomfort, a Pap is not usually a painful exam,” Almonte Ceron says.
After the Pap smear is completed, a pelvic exam is performed to examine the uterus, ovaries, and cervix. She says the healthcare practitioner is looking for pain during the procedure. Pain can be a sign of inflammation, infection, fibroids, a UTI (urinary tract infection), or even a pulled muscle.
If the initial Pap smear shows irregular findings of low level importance or the cervical cells test positive for HPV, the recommendation is to repeat the Pap in a year. If the results show HPV and irregular findings, then the recommendation is to do a colposcopy, an exam during which a doctor closely examines the cervix for signs of disease.
If the doctor confirms abnormal findings during the colposcopy, a biopsy is recommended.
Almonte Ceron also emphasizes the need for proactive care. She recommends condom use during intercourse as well as the HPV vaccine.
Children ages 9 and older are eligible for the vaccine, and Almonte Ceron says most insurance will cover the vaccine up to age 45. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, cases of cervical cancer have dropped since 2006 when the vaccine was introduced.
The CDC states that among vaccinated women, the percentage of cervical precancers caused by HPV types most often linked to cervical cancer has dropped by 40 percent.
It all boils down to one point.
“Don’t be afraid of the vaccine,” Almonte Ceron says.
Central Florida Health Care provides women’s care at the Lakeland Primary Care location, as well as at their Avon Park, Davenport, Lake Wales, Wauchula, and Winter Haven’s Women and Children facilities.
Central Florida Health Care has 15 sites in Polk, Hard, and Highlands counties, including one unique Community School Health Center located at Crystal Lake Elementary School in Lakeland. They also have two mobile health care units to serve the most rural areas of the tri-county site.