By DR. DEBORAH SMITH
With the start of a new year, it’s time to make some new year’s resolutions. While everyone should resolve to be healthier in 2013, women and transgender men who have not had reaffirming surgery should pay particular attention to cervical health with pap smears and vaccinations for Human Papillomavirus (HPV). And, since January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, it’s a perfect time to take action!
Let’s start with the facts. Cervical cancer is not common but persons who are previously unscreened or who have additional risk factors such as immune deficiency have increased precancerous and cancerous cell changes.
Most cervical cancers are caused by infection with HPV. According to the National Cancer Institute, “(v)irtually all cervical cancers are caused by HPV infections, with just two HPV types, 16 and 18, responsible for about 70 percent of all cases. HPV also causes anal cancer, with about 85 percent of all cases caused by HPV-16. HPV types 16 and 18 have also been found to cause close to half of vaginal, vulvar, and penile cancers.”
While there is little to no data on cervical cancer rates among lesbians, bisexual women or the transgender community, we do know that these populations have serious barriers to accessing health care.
According to the Mautner Project: “LBT women are less likely to seek routine health care because of the difficulties of coming out to doctors or health care providers and limited access to health insurance. With fewer doctor visits, LGBT individuals are less likely to have Pap Smears. Women who partner with women are less likely to be diagnosed at earlier, more treatable stages. Higher rates of smoking and misinformation about sexual health (including how STD’s are transferred) for women who partner with women all contribute to an increased risk of cervical cancer.”
So, while lesbians, bisexual women and the transgender community may be at higher risk for cervical cancer, they are not getting the proper screenings, vaccinations and treatment that could prevent it
Well, that needs to change. And here’s what you should do:
1. Schedule regular Pap tests. As with any cancer, early detection is vital to prevention and, if necessary, successful treatment. Pap tests will detect any abnormal cells, the “footprints” of HPV infection, which could lead to cancer. One exam every two-three years depending on your age could literally save your life.
2. Get the HPV vaccination. HPV vaccines are given as three shots. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “(t)wo vaccines (Cervarix and Gardasil) have been shown to protect against most cervical cancers in women. One vaccine (Gardasil) also protects against genital warts and has been shown to protect against cancers of the anus, vagina and vulva.” While HPV vaccines work best when given before someone begins sexual activity (recommended between the ages of 9-26), it can still provide protection against cancers caused by the virus.
3. Stop smoking. Smoking combined with high levels of HPV infection can increase your risk of cervical cancer 27 times, according to the American Association for Cancer Research. And think of all the other health benefits you get by quitting.
Whitman-Walker Health can help you. We offer gynecology services that are both culturally competent and offered in an affirming environment. Our medical providers are well versed in how to care for the LGBT community often making patients more comfortable in disclosing their sexual orientation and gender identity. Each year, hundreds of patients come to us for screenings and HPV vaccinations.
If you would like to become a gynecology patient at Whitman-Walker, please call 202-745-7000 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll help you become a patient. Don’t worry if you don’t have insurance. We can still help you.
Dr. Deborah Smith is a gynecologist at Whitman-Walker Health.