At age 22, the inter-workings of my cervix are not something I think
about on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis. Rather, the only time I really ponder it is at my yearly
gynecological check up when I am having a surge of anxiety that something “down
there” could be or might be wrong.
Although I work in the
reproductive health, rights and justice field, and am pretty well versed in all
things reproductive, I sometimes forget the real importance of the cervix itself. For my generation, discussions about
the cervix and cervical health are overshadowed by hype around the HPV vaccines
and cervical cancer. There is
little knowledge about the cervix as part of women’s overall reproductive
health and wellbeing. However, I
was recently reminded that January is Cervical
Health Awareness Month, and decided to take this opportunity to find out why
the cervix is important to reproductive health. January was designated Cervical
Health Awareness Month by the U.S. Congress as a means to raise awareness
of this preventable disease and promote early detection through screening.
So why do we need to
be aware of the cervix? Here
are a few of the cervix’s key
functions: 1) allows the passage of menstrual fluid; 2) promotes fertility;
3) protects the uterus, upper reproductive tract, and a developing fetus from
pathogens; and lastly, 4) plays a possible role in women’s sexual pleasure. Clearly the cervix is an important part
of women’s reproductive health and we want to keep it healthy, but in doing so
we must also understand its health threats. You are probably already aware of HPV and its relation to
cervical cancer, but what people my age might not realize is that other sexually
transmitted infections (STIs) also pose a huge risk to cervical health. Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and HIV are all
bad news for the cervix, especially since the cervix acts as the primary site
of infection. Undetected Gonorrhea or Chlamydia can lead to long-term
reproductive health problems, some as serious as infertility.
How can we maintain
cervical health with all these threats? Although the HPV vaccines, Cervarix and Gardasil, are the
most widely touted methods for preventing cervical cancer and maintaining
cervical health, there is another way to keep your cervix healthy- the Pap test (or pap smear). Since the existence of the Pap
smear, deaths from cervical cancer have dropped 74%. Although the Pap smear is not entirely
full proof, and has its share of false positive and false negative readings, we
cannot discount the importance of it as a screening tool. Recently, ACOG reformed its guidelines
to suggest that women should not start getting the pap test until age 21 and
then continue to do so every other year until 30. However, yearly visits to the gynecologist are still
suggested. Cervical health is not
solely contingent on whether one has HPV, and yearly testing for STIs,
including, Gonorrhea, Chlamydia and HIV are a necessary component to ensure your
best cervical health.
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With nearly 4,000
women dying every year of cervical cancer, and Chlamydia on the rise as one of
the most common STIs, maintaining one’s cervical health is incredibly
important. Instead of using only
one month to expand awareness of cervical health, we should use everyday to encourage
women of all ages, and ourselves, to not only know the importance of the
cervix, but also the ways to maintain a healthy cervix. So what’s my new year’s resolution? Easy, spreading the word about what it
means to have a healthy cervix.