January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month and a great time to revisit some facts about this very treatable disease. According to the Office of Women’s Health, each year approximately 12,000 women in the U.S. get cervical cancer and 1 to 3 percent of these women are pregnant. Unfortunately, many women do not have a Pap smear until the time of pregnancy when it is first detected.

The main cause of cervical cancer is a virus known as the human papillomavirus or HPV that is transmitted through sexual activity. The earlier a person becomes sexually active, the greater their risk of obtaining HPV. Women who have multiple sexual partners are also at risk and women who smoke cigarettes are as well.

During the early stages of cervical cancer women usually do not have symptoms but as the disease progresses, abnormal bleeding or spotting, especially after sexual intercourse is one of the first signs of the disease. A very sad case comes to mind about a 28-year old woman who kept going back and forth to the emergency room with complaints of vaginal bleeding. An ultrasound was done that revealed fibroid tumors in her uterus so the medical staff assumed that was the cause of her bleeding. Months later, it was discovered that she had late-stage cervical cancer and died.

Cervical cancer can be detected early through a Pap test which is simple and painless. It involves your healthcare provider taking a small sample of the cells inside the cervix and sending it to an outside lab to be tested. This test is recommended for all women aged 21 to 65 and this is especially true for pregnant women. If you are pregnant and have early-stage cervical cancer, the treatment is sometimes delayed until after the baby is born. All women who have abnormal Pap smears should follow the advice of their health care provider and have follow-up. Many pregnant women with abnormal Pap smears place their lives in danger when they do not return for a post-partum checkup.

Cervical cancer is a very curable disease and a great reason to get a Pap smear. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”