January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. In the United States, nearly 13,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, but the disease is preventable with vaccination and appropriate screening (Pap and HPV tests).
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is cancer that starts in the cervix, the narrow opening into the uterus from the vagina. The normal “ectocervix” (the portion of the uterus extending into the vagina) is a healthy pink color and is covered with flat, thin cells called squamous cells. The “endocervix” or cervical canal is made up of another kind of cell called columnar cells. The area where these cells meet is called the “transformation zone” (T-zone) and is the most likely location for abnormal or precancerous cells to develop.
Most cervical cancers (80 to 90 percent) are squamous cell cancers. Adenocarcinoma is the second most common type of cervical cancer, accounting for the remaining 10 to 20 percent of cases. Adenocarcinoma develops from the glands that produce mucus in the endocervix. While less common than squamous cell carcinoma, the incidence of adenocarcinoma is on the rise, particularly in younger women.
More than 13,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, and more than 4,000 of women will die. Cervical cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer for women worldwide, but because it develops over time, it is also one of the most preventable types of cancer. Deaths from cervical cancer in the United States continue to decline by approximately 2 percent a year. This decline is primarily due to the widespread use of the Pap test to detect cervical abnormalities and allow for early treatment. Most women who have abnormal cervical cell changes that progress to cervical cancer have never had a Pap test or have not had one in the previous three to five years.
Cervical cancer tends to occur during midlife. It is most frequently diagnosed in women between the ages of 35 and 44. It rarely affects women under age 20, and more than 15 percent of diagnoses are made in women older than 65. But in women over 65, cancer typical occurs in women who were not receiving regular screening.
Throughout January, the National Cervical Cancer Coalition (NCCC) and its many local chapters across the country highlight issues related to cervical cancer, HPV disease and the importance of early detection. While NCCC chapters host events throughout the year, January is a month with a special focus as chapters celebrate Cervical Health Awareness Month and work to spread the word in their communities.
NCCC and the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) also offer a range of resources (listed below) to educate the public and healthcare providers about cervical health, from fact sheets to episodes of ASHA’s Sex+Health podcast.