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National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month: Ending cervical cancer in our lifetime

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By The Staff

In Kentucky and throughout the nation, cervical cancer is a disease that occurs with alarming frequency, harming tens of thousands of women each year. According to the American Cancer Society, about 3,700 women will die nationwide this year from cervical cancer, with more than 11,150 new cases diagnosed.

From my own personal experience as a medical doctor, I can attest that the occurrence of cervical cancer within Kentucky is one of the highest in the nation. Statistics from the Kentucky Cancer Registry show that in 1998, Kentucky's invasive cervical cancer incidence rate was 49 percent higher than the national rate.

Yet this cancer is almost entirely preventable. In conjunction with the National Lieutenant Governor's Association, National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month and as a concerned medical doctor, I would like to use this opportunity to enlighten Kentuckians about the facts regarding this preventable and, unfortunately, pervasive disease.

Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by a viral infection known as human papillomavirus or HPV. There are many types of HPV, the majority of which are spread by skin to skin contact in the genital area. Some more benign forms of HPV cause no symptoms and usually go away on their own. However, there are many high-risk forms of HPV that have much more dramatic consequences. High-risk HPV can stay in a woman's body a period of years, perhaps without initial symptoms. Nevertheless, once a woman is infected, the high-risk HPV virus causes the cells to change form, eventually leading to the development of cervical cancer.

Luckily, though, cervical cancer can be prevented or cured by removing the abnormal cells before they reach a cancerous state. One surefire way to detect these abnormal cells is through obtaining a regularly scheduled Pap test. Low-cost and free Pap tests are available in communities across Kentucky.

In my medical practice in Eastern Kentucky, I have heard many women raise concerns about being able to afford this procedure. However, there are resources in place to help those who may be unable to finance such screenings. If you think you cannot afford a Pap test, please call The Kentucky Women's Cancer Screening Program at (800) 4CANCER. This program works in conjunction with local health departments to provide the free and low-cost Pap test programs. The program can also provide resources about cervical cancer for those women who are typically underserved and uninsured.

According to the Department of Public Health, about 60 percent of all women who die of cervical cancer have either never been screened or have not been screened in the past five years. Clearly, offensive action is key to preventing the development of this disease.

Additionally, you can take the following steps to reduce the chance of HPV infection. The surest prevention of HPV infection is abstinence. If one does become sexually active, limiting the number of sexual partners decreases the chance of infection. In conjunction with limiting the people with whom one is involved, the use of condoms can reduce, but will not eliminate, the chance of HPV infection. Following these guidelines will go great distances towards helping to prevent the spread of this infectious virus.

Why talk about cervical cancer now? It is in recent years that the facts told here have become generally, medically accepted. Modern medicine and advanced technology have also put new tools before us in the fight against cervical cancer. When a woman receives an unclear Pap test result, for example, doctors may now order a test that can specifically determine if high-risk HPV is in the body.

In addition, one vaccine is available and another is being tested which, combined, protect against four types of HPV, including the two types of HPV that cause 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. The vaccine in use is the first cancer fighting vaccine in the world and it was developed by researchers who, because of the Bucks for Brains Program, work and teach at the University of Louisville.

So - as both your Lieutenant Governor and a medical doctor - I am joining with men and women, Republicans and Democrats, and lieutenant governors across the country in trying to pass on these facts so you can act. My message is simple. Cervical cancer is almost always caused by a sexually transmitted virus. Women should commit to get a regular Pap test and follow up on results. These regular screenings eventually can rid us of cervical cancer.

Please, pass it on to your friends and neighbors throughout the commonwealth and nation. If we all work together, we can help end cervical cancer perhaps within our lifetime.

u Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo is a practicing medical doctor in Hazard, Ky. He served as state senator from the 30th District from 2000 to 2007.