Every year more than 13,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer, that’s according to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition. That’s why January is Cervical Health Awareness Month.

Luanne Solis, an OBGYN at Comanche County Memorial Hospital, says there are two major things women can do to prevent cervical cancer.

“The first way is a vaccine,” Solis said. “The HPV vaccine or Gardasil is a vaccine that prevents precancer from forming. The FDA has approved it to be from 9 to 46. It used to be from 9 to 26, but they recently increased the age to prevent precancers.”

She said the other way is by going to your health care provider and get a pap – which is a screening test. Solis said early symptoms of cervical cancer would be abnormal vaginal bleeding, heavy menstruation.

“Later signs would be more like fatigue, nausea, weight loss,” she said. “So, those are all important symptoms that you’d want to talk to your health care provider about.”

She said if you start experiencing these symptoms, schedule an appointment with your gynecologist.

So, what’s putting people more at risk for developing the cancer?

“The biggest one is having HPV, which is the human papillomavirus. It has about 150 strains of HPV, but the high-risk ones are what we test for, and that’s because those are the ones that increase your risk of cancer, and so that is a big risk factor, and another risk factor that is preventable is smoking. So, if you can stop smoking, that can decrease your risk of cancer.”

She said detecting cervical cancer can take years to diagnose — which is why they try to detect precancer during a pap.

“If we can prevent or detect a precancer, we can get rid of it – whether it’s through an additional procedure or taking a biopsy, or taking a bigger biopsy in the OR,” she said. “Those are all ways to get rid of the precancer cells.”

She says once the cells are gone, you’ll have a follow-up, and if it looks good, you go back to the normal routine screenings.

Solis says if you’ve always had regular pap smears, then one is needed every 3 to 5 years, depending on your age.