I've always admired people who run for a cause. I've had friends run for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, crohns and colitis, as well as breast cancer. I have tended to lean toward breast cancer, because my grandma and great aunt died from it before I was born. Now I have a cause that has hit much closer to home than anything else: Cervical cancer.
My sister, Melissa, was recently diagnosed with stage 1B1, which is contained in the cervix (thank God!!) She will undergo chemotherapy and radiation as treatment starting very soon. I also know someone personally with stage 1A, someone that has tested positive for high risk HPV/negative for abnormal cell growth, and a two-time survivor.
If you don't know much about cervical cancer, I'm going to do my best to educate you. I'll admit that until about a month ago, I didn't even know a whole lot about it. All I knew was that it is caused by HPV, (actually about 99% of cases are-more about the other 1% later) and if you get your Pap smear regularly, it is very much preventable. I have done a lot of research following Mel's diagnosis, and would like to share with you what I have learned.
***My usual disclaimer: I am a Doctor of Pharmacy, but not an MD or DO. Please always consult with your doctor before trying any new diet or exercise program, or if you have unusual symptoms that you think might be concerning. I am not recommending that you do these things. I am just sharing with you some of the research I have done, and the sources of that information.***
The Human Papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted infection. About 79 million people in the U.S. have HPV1. It is so common that by age 50, 4 out of 5 women will have had at least one type of it at some point in their lives.2
Of the 40 different strains (types) of HPV that are sexually transmitted, 13 can lead to cervical cancer. 1 HPV types 16 and 18 cause 70% of the cases of cervical cancer.3 Most instances of HPV infection are cleared (fought off into dormancy) by the immune system within 1 to 2 years. Even if they cause cytologic abnormalities (abnormal cell changes,) most of these also go away on their own. Some infections persist for years, and can cause cervical cell abnormalities that can eventually turn into cancer if left untreated.3 This is why it is so SO important to get a regular Pap smear. The key to prevention or catching the cancer while it is still treatable is getting your Pap!
A few facts that you should know:
- Most cases of HPV are asymptomatic, especially in men.2 In fact, there is no FDA approved method to test for it in men.3
- Partners that have been together awhile typically share HPV.5
- HPV can be dormant for many years before ever becoming an active infection. It is very difficult to determine the source of infection if there has been more than one sexual partner.5
- Risk factors for cervical cancer besides HPV infection include smoking, immunosupression (or weakened immune system,) poor diet (not containing enough fruits and vegetables,) obesity, oral contraceptive and IUD use, multiple full term pregnancies, having first full term pregnancy at a young age, and poverty (less access to adequate health care, proper screening and preventive measures.)6
- The other 1% of cervical cancer cases is not caused by HPV. This kind of cervical cancer is called small/large cell neuroendocrine carcinoma of the cervix (SCCC/LCCC.) For more information and a personal story about this, I will refer you to Suzanne's blog. Drop by, read her story, and give her some love. What a strong woman!!
If you are diagnosed with HPV and want to do everything you can to prevent it from becoming cancer, there are a few things you can do. First, is quit smoking.3 If you need advice in smoking cessation, talk to your doctor or pharmacist, or leave me a comment below. I can point you in the right direction.
Second, get healthy.6 Are you overweight? Speak with your doctor about whether or not a new exercise regimen is okay for you to start based on your current condition and any underlying health problems you might have. Along with getting healthy comes dietary improvements.7 Make sure you are eating lots of fruits and vegetables.8 I've seen several sources, including the one I just cited, say that eating foods that support a healthy immune system can possibly help to prevent abnormal cell changes. I'm not sure if there's a true cause and effect relationship that has been proven in a legitimate and well designed study, but it makes perfect sense. The immune system is what fights off the HPV infections that do not result in atypical cell changes. Another source of that information was a general practitioner (MD) of one of my ladies I referred to earlier. Ensuring you are getting enough folic acid and vitamin C in your diet was her recommendation. Here are some foods that are high in folic acid:9
- Dark green leafy veggies (spinach, kale, etc)
- Brussels sprouts
Eating these vegetables raw will maximize the folic acid you get out of them.
Here are foods that are high in vitamin C:9
- Red peppers (sweet)
- Green peppers (sweet)
- Brussels sprouts
Something I do almost everyday is throw some spinach and kale into my smoothies. You can't even taste them! I will warn you, though, a little bit of kale goes a long way. Don't overdo it with the kale. You're welcome :-).
I would love it if you would comment and share any experiences you have relating to this post. I understand that not everyone is comfortable sharing, and that's completely ok. If you have a story that you want told anonymously, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I would be glad to include your story in an upcoming post!
I am writing about this because I think that, as women, we need to have each others' backs more. When it comes to any issue that arises in life, we women need to stick together and help each other out whenever possible. This is a health issue we all need to know about, because chances are you will be affected by it sometime in your life whether you know it or not. I want you to know. By getting your regular Pap, you WILL know, and you will be able to catch it early if it becomes a problem.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: You MUST be your own advocate. If you sense there is something wrong, there probably is. If a doctor tells you that guidelines now say to wait a year until your next Pap and you don't feel comfortable waiting that long, insist on getting checked again in 6 months! No one else is going to do it for you. Take some responsibility for your own healthcare and well being, and do what you need to do to keep yourself in tip top condition.
This is only part one of a series of posts I will be doing on cervical cancer awareness. Next up will be Melissa's Story. I am looking forward to writing it with her, and supporting her through her treatment so she can become a survivor and kick cancer's ass! I love you sis!!!
Til next time….