Cervical Health Awareness Month: 5 Things You Need to Know
As we enter 2023 with intentions around health, let's not forget the 13,000 women diagnosed with cervical cancer each year in the United States. Nearly 80 million Americans – roughly half of whom are women – are infected with HPV, the virus that causes cervical cancer. This disease, although deadly in its later stages, is highly preventable and treatable.
January has been declared the official National Cervical Health Awareness Month by the United States Congress to increase the understanding of the disease, and its prevalence and to help women adopt certain practices to keep themselves safe.
In this article, we’ll cover cervical health to share knowledge about the disease and provide tips on how you can help yourself, your daughter, or the women around you.
Cervical Health Awareness Month: Understanding Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cervix (the part of the uterus that connects to the vagina). The main cause of cervical cancer is sexual activity that transmits HPV (human papillomavirus).
Typically, female bodies are equipped with immune systems that respond to HPV and prevent it from causing any harm. However, in a small percentage of people, HPV survives for years and causes cervical cells to change their DNA mutation and become cancer cells that can invade the nearby tissues and organs.
Common Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
There are rarely any symptoms or signs displayed when cervical cancer is in its early stages. This is the reason why you must keep getting regular screening and tests (more on this later).
However, in advanced stages, cervical cancer shows the following symptoms:
- Pelvic pain
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Bloody/watery vaginal discharge with a foul smell
- Blood discharge from the vagina after sexual intercourse, after menopause, or in-between menstruation periods
Importance of Cervical Screenings for You and your Daughter
Screening is very much a personal choice, and it’s crucial that women feel fully informed and comfortable with making the decision. However, getting regular screenings is a vital part of your health. Doctors recommend a yearly checkup to focus on the female reproductive system, starting between ages 13-15.
These visits, known as "well-woman visits", can catch small issues before they become big problems. These screenings help your doctor get a baseline for you so they can monitor your reproductive health over time.
How to Prepare Your Teen for her First Gynaecological Visits
For many teen girls, going to their first gynaecology appointment can seem a little scary or embarrassing. As her mom (or dad/aunt/friend), You can ease her nerves by telling her what to expect in a well-woman visit. Explain to your teen why the visit is needed, and what she can expect, and talk about any questions or fears she might have.
Remember: Before you tell her all about your first experience, make sure you’re up to date with the current recommendations. Chances are, her first appointment will be different than yours!
How to Ease Your Teen’s Nerves
Start by discussing that a well-woman visit provides two things: information and treatment.
During her visit, she can get accurate information and confidential answers to her questions about sex, sexuality, puberty, self-pleasure, sexual risks, and periods. Her doctor can diagnose and treat problems, such as missed periods, and pelvic or stomach pain. Her doctor will answer any questions she has, to ensure she leaves the appointment feeling comfortable and confident.
NOTE: Be careful if her doctor recommends hormonal treatments such as birth control from a young age. Mounting evidence suggests that early hormonal treatment such as birth control can be linked to a whole host of problems later in life!
For some girls, the first OBGYN visit can be as simple as a talk with the doctor.
For others, their doctor may do a physical exam, including examining the vulva and breasts. Reassure your daughter that the physical exam doesn’t take long and is a quick check to track your daughter’s development. Talking about these things before the doctor's visit helps your daughter feel prepared and at ease.
What to Expect at the First Gynecology Visit
The first visit is typically 20-30 minutes long. It is an important time for her to get to know her provider.
During the exam, a couple of different things happen. They'll talk about her:
- Personal health history
- Family health history
- Menstrual cycles: how often they occur, what the bleeding is like, whether she has cramps. Her OBGYN can help if her periods are interfering with her daily life.
- Diet and exercise: Adolescence is an important time to develop healthy eating and exercise habits, as well as a healthy body image.
- Sexual activity: Everything she tells her OBGYN is confidential. She must be honest about any sexual activity so that she can be given the appropriate STI testing.
During the first OBGYN appointment, the physical exam will cover:
- Height and weight measurements
- Blood pressure
- Pulse and respiration
If your teen needs further physical examination, the reasons and methods used will be explained to her. She’ll have a chance to ask her OBGYN any questions at this point. She can also request to have another person in the exam room with her.
The physical exam MIGHT also include:
Before age 21, a pelvic exam is typically only performed if she has heavy bleeding or pelvic pain.
This Cervical Health Awareness Month, we should ALL take the time to reinforce the importance of regular screenings to the ones we love. Having annual screenings allows medical professionals to catch small things before they get bigger and ensure your vulva is healthy over the years.
Keep your Yoni happy and healthy Yoni Gang!