On Your Health

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Everything You Need to Know About Your Cervix

You might be surprised to learn how few women are familiar with their own reproductive system. In a recent study, only 44 percent of women were able to correctly identify the cervix.

Did you know that about 12,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year? According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 4,000 of diagnosed women die from cervical cancer. This occurs even though there is a vaccine for the most common cause of cervical cancer, which is often underutilized.

This week is Women’s Health Week. Let’s start at the beginning and have an open discussion about what the cervix is, where to find it, and how to keep yours healthy.

What is your cervix and where is it?

Unlike other parts of the female reproductive system like the vagina, ovaries, and labia, the cervix doesn’t get much attention. "The cervix is a part of the uterus," says Dr. Gregory Root, who is an OB-GYN at INTEGRIS Canadian Valley Hospital in Yukon. "It is located at the end of the vagina and acts as the opening point into the uterus where sperm can travel to reach eggs and potentially lead to fertilization."

The cervix makes up the lower third of the uterus and connects to the vaginal canal. It isn’t very large, only about 3-5 centimeters thick and 2-3 centimeters across.

What does your cervix do?

The cervix acts as the door to the uterus which sperm can travel through to fertilize eggs. When your body is not carrying a child, your cervix helps keep unhealthy things out of your body, like tampons and bath water. When you’re pregnant, the cervix helps keep the baby in place until it’s fully developed.

"The cervix has many functions," Dr. Root says. "Probably the most important is its role in childbirth. The cervix is needed to prevent preterm labor and cue the body to dilate at the right time and enable a child to be born vaginally."

The shape and color of your cervix varies slightly throughout your menstrual and life cycles.

How do you take care of your cervix?

Since your cervix is vital to feminine health, it’s important to do your best to keep it healthy and functioning properly.

"The cervix is usually damaged through childbirth," Dr. Root says. "There is also concern for the cancer-causing risks of attracting the human papillomaviruses (HPV) through unprotected sexual intercourse."

Damage caused during childbirth can heal as the body does, while at other times it may need help from your doctor. If this happens to you or a loved one, it’s important to talk with your doctor and follow his or her advice. Future childbirth can become more difficult if the cervix doesn’t heal properly.

HPV is a common virus with many variations, which are all spread by skin-to-skin contact and can be passed from one person to another through unprotected sexual intercourse. While some types of HPV can cause changes to a woman’s cervix that can have deadly effects over time, other types cause skin or genital warts.

Generally, a woman’s body will clear the HPV from her system quickly, but this is not always the case. The deadly form of the HPV virus begins to change the cells from normal to abnormal — and while the abnormal cells can often be healed by the body — they could also lead to cervical cancer if not found by a doctor and removed.

"If the HPV virus is contracted, it can lead to cervical cancer which is one of the deadliest cancers in the world," Dr. Root says. "There is no pill or medication to rid your body of cancer-causing HPV. Safe sex using the protection of a latex condom is of utmost importance."

How do you avoid cervical cancer?

Even though cervical cancer is extremely deadly if not detected until it has advanced, it's easy to prevent and treat with early detection.

Once a woman is 21 years old, or when she becomes sexually active, it’s important to see an OB-GYN to begin screening with Pap smears. If abnormal cells are detected in early stages, actions can be taken to remove them before they even turn into cancer.

Another step to prevent cervical cancer is to get a series of highly effective shots developed for cervical, vaginal, penile and anal cancer protection. The HPV vaccine is available for both men and women and is most effective if given to a person before he or she becomes sexually active. A study published in the journal Pediatrics shows that in the decade since the vaccine became available, there has been a sharp decline in the number of U.S. women who enter adulthood infected with HPV.

"It’s so important," says Dr. Root. "The CDC recommends all women should receive the vaccination. Around the age of 12 years old is the ideal time to receive it, but it is thought to be beneficial up to the age of 40."

How big is the problem of cervical cancer in Oklahoma?

"People still die every year in the state of Oklahoma from cervical cancer," Dr. Root says. "Reasons like under-vaccination, the unavailability of Pap smear screening to low-income populations and non-compliance with screenings are often the cause."

To keep your cervix healthy and whole, get vaccinated, use safe sex practices with a condom, and get screened by your doctor. If you don’t have a doctor or are looking for a new one, visit the INTEGRIS Health website for resources.

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