Preventing cervical cancer

May 6, 2008 8:56:13 PM PDT
The Human Papillmoma Virus, HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted disease. It can sometimes lead to cervical cancer. Younger women are protecting themselves with a vaccine and there's a special test for older women, but many women in their 30's to 60's have never heard of it. That's why a local woman is sharing her story.

Jennifer Noble-Slaton always dreamed of the day she'd have kids. "All my life, I wanted to be a mom," she said. When she was 30, she met the man of her dreams. But as they planned for a family, they got devastating news. Jennifer was diagnosed with stage two cervical cancer. She was told she wouldn't be able to have children. "It sucked all the air right out of my lungs, I couldn't even breathe, I couldn't talk, I couldn't speak for a couple of seconds," she said.

Jennifer couldn't understand it because she said throughout her lifetime she's only had one abnormal pap smear. She said she was treated and then her paps went back to being normal.

Dr. Randolph Deger of Virtua Health in Voorhees said the pap smear is one of the best screening tools for cancer, but it's not foolproof. "You don't see a virus on a pap smear, you need to test for that additionally," he said, referring to the Human Papilloma Virus, or HPV. High-risk types of the virus are the leading cause of cervical cancer.

Pap smears look for abnormal cells caused by the virus. But the 'HPV Test' looks for the virus itself before it causes damage. Experts say doing both tests is the best way for women over 30 to protect themselves.

For Jennifer it's too late. She's had surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation all before she's turned 40. But she's thankful to be alive and she's thankful for something else. She and her husband recently adopted two kids, a brother and sister.

"These children, a baby boy and a baby girl, Layla and Jackson desperately needed a mommy and daddy and we desperately needed a baby boy and girl," she said.

But Jennifer is still battling the effects of her treatment. Her hip bones have broken down due to radiation and she has other internal problems. The HPV Test wasn't available when she was diagnosed and even now that it is, studies show 58-percent of women over age 30 have never heard of it. Jennifer urges women to ask for it. "If it can take just one person off of that list from going through what I went through, it's worth it," she said.

The HPV-test is done at the same time as your pap smear. Dr. Deger recommends it especially for women over 30 who are not in a monogamous relationship, who smoke, or who've ever had an abnormal pap smear even if you were treated.

It's estimated three out of every four people get HPV at sometime. The body usually gets rid of it on its own and it's not a problem, but HPV can also linger for years and that can be a problem.

There's no telling how long Jennifer had the virus. She's just happy her cancer was caught when it was. "I'm just happy to be here," she said, adding her kids are "my heart and joy."

If you have a normal pap smear and a positive HPV test, that doesn't necessarily mean you're at a greater risk for cancer. It does mean you need to follow-up closer with your doctor. The HPV test is covered by most insurance plans.