January is Cervical Health Awareness Month and an excellent time to honor this rarely seen part of the body which has important sexual and reproductive health functions.
Doing two important things can help prevent cervical cancer: the HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) vaccine and getting routine screening for cervical cancer, according to Kaiyti Duffy, Medical Director of the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Audre Lorde Health Program for lesbian and bi women.
Cervical cancer screening is recommended, starting at age 21, for anyone with a cervix, whether or not a person has received the HPV vaccine and regardless of sexual activity.
“We understand that cervical cancer screening can feel very scary,” Duffy says. “Our trained providers have many ways to ensure that the process feels safe for our patients including, in certain circumstances, the ability for them to collect a sample of their own cells.”
The cervix protects the upper reproductive tract from bacteria, allows for passage of menstrual blood and, sometimes, newborn babies from the uterus to the outside world. It grows and changes with hormonal fluctuations and can develop benign (non-cancerous) growths such as cysts or polyps.
The cervix, explains Duffy, is also very sensitive and can become infected if exposed to bacteria such as the sexually transmitted infections: gonorrhea or chlamydia. Sometimes these infections produce no symptoms but often the cervix produces a discharge when in need of medical treatment.
“When exposed to the human papilloma virus, the cells on the cervix can start to grow abnormally,” Duffy says. ”If this growth is not monitored, the cervix can become cancerous.”
The HPV vaccine protects against 80% of the strains that cause cancer. It is most effective if given before starting sexual activity but is generally administered between ages 9 and 26. People up to age 45 can receive the vaccine.
Getting vaccinated for HPV can dramatically lower one’s risk of cancer but the risk still exists. To decrease the risk, health care providers can perform routine screening to make sure that there is no abnormal growth of the cervical cells and/or there is no HPV present in the reproductive tract.
The Center accepts most insurance plans and can help people who are uninsured or underinsured qualify for assistance programs. For more info, visit lalgbtcenter.org/insurance_plans