Cancer of the cervix is the most common type of cancer found in women worldwide. It affects an estimated 500,000 women each year.

Sharmila Makhija, ULP gynecologic oncologist and chair of the UofL Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, heads the University Women’s Health Care practice. She explains that cervical cancer is a disease in which pre-cancerous cells develop in the tissues of the cervix (lower part of the uterus) often in reaction to the persistence of the human papillomavirus, or HPV, a sexually transmitted virus. Health care professionals use the Pap test in conjunction with a screen for HPV to find abnormal cells in cervical tissue that are cancerous or may become cancerous.

Risk factors include

  • Persistent infection with high-risk HPV
  • A compromised immune system
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Infection with chlamydia bacteria
  • A diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • A family history

“The earlier cervical cancer is diagnosed, the better the chance for a cure,” Makhija said. The American Cancer Society reports that both incidence and deaths from cervical cancer have declined significantly over the last several decades due to more frequent detection by increased screening. Additionally, the FDA approved an HPV vaccine, called Gardasil, co-developed by ULP clinical researchers Ben Jenson and Shin-je-Ghim, which can protect women against the four most common cancer causing strains of HPV. The vaccine, however, should be given before an infection occurs, ideally before a girl becomes sexually active. The vaccine is recommended for girls 11 and 12 years old, but it may also be given to women between ages 13-26 who did not receive it when they were younger.

“The reason screening is so important in preventing cervical cancer is because the disease usually causes no symptoms in its earliest stages. Irregular bleeding, bleeding or pain during sex or vaginal discharge may be symptoms of more advanced disease. These symptoms should always be discussed with your health care professional,” Makhija said.

University Women’s Health Care is accepting new patients and is conveniently located in the UofL Health Care Outpatient Center. To make an appointment for a routine exam or screen, or to refer a patient, call 271-5999 or go to University Women’s Health Care.

Editor’s Note: UofL Today reprints To Your Health from the “ULP Insider” newsletter. Read the entire January issue. (Opens as a PDF document.)