Since January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, we're doing one of the things we do best, which is spread fact-based information, and we're sharing the most important things you can do to take care of your cervix in order to have a healthy pregnancy and birth.
First let's start from the top, er, the bottom -- that is, what is your cervix? And where is it? You may already know this, but I never want to assume. Your cervix is the bottom part, including the opening, of your uterus; it's sometimes referred to as the "neck" of the uterus. The cervix is internal, so you can't see it from the outside or anywhere around your vagina. Some people have taken extra measures to get to know -- and see -- their cervix with the use of a mirror, flashlight, and speculum (the device that OBs and midwives use to open your vaginal walls and look at your cervix). The two main roles of your cervix are to open slightly to allow blood and tissue to pass through during your period, and to dilate and open for birth. The cervix also is responsible for producing cervical mucous/fluid in various consistencies throughout your cycle. Cervical fluid plays a key role in the ability to get pregnant, as it helps transport sperm inside the uterus and ultimately to the egg for fertilization.
When people talk about "cervical health," it primarily refers to the prevention of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer happens when cells within the cervix grow abnormally. Cervical cancer is a slow growing cancer, but if left undetected and untreated, it can spread to other tissues and organs within the body. Most all cervical cancer is caused by "HPV" or human papillomavirus, which is the name of a large group of viruses, the most well known of which causes warts (common warts and genital warts).
HPV is very common and many, if not most, adults have had it at some point in their lives without even knowing it. This is because some types of HPV can cause no noticeable symptoms or health issues and can go away on its own. You can get HPV by coming in skin-to-skin contact with an infected person, or by using a personal item (like a razor or washcloth) from a person who is infected. This means that you can also contract HPV through sexual contact.
When HPV does not go away on its own, it causes problems like genital warts and cancer. Most genital HPV cases do not cause cancer, but since most cervical cancer is caused by HPV, it's important to seek routine care and treatment.
The best source of prevention for HPV and cervical cancer is regular screenings via routine pap smears at your care provider. During a pap smear, your doctor will scrape cervical cells that are then sent out for review. If they are found to be abnormal, your provider will perform further analysis and possibly a biopsy.
You can help prevent HPV in two main ways. The first is by wearing protection, like condoms and dental dams, during vaginal/penetrative, anal, and oral sex. This method is not completely protective against HPV, but it does reduce the incidence of it. The other method for prevention is by getting the HPV vaccine, which is approved for people up to age 45.
HPV, Cancer, and Pregnancy
Many people who have or have had HPV may be able to go on to have safe and healthy pregnancies, births, and babies. Even if you have an active case of HPV during pregnancy, your care will likely remain routine. It is important, however, to let your care provider know if you know you have HPV.
If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer during pregnancy, your doctors will work with you to determine treatment and course of action, which will depend upon many factors like how far progressed the cancer is, and how far along you are in your pregnancy.
Is your cervical health top of mind? In what ways could you help yourself be more diligent about routine care and screening?