Cervical cancer is entirely preventable – it just takes knowledge, screening and vaccination.
Dr. John O. Schorge, a nationally-known leader in the treatment of cervical cancer and other gynecologic cancers, came to Regional One Health to make it easier for women to access the tools they need to prevent a cancer diagnosis.
During Women’s Health Awareness Month, he’s reaching out to education patients about cervical cancer symptoms, risk factors, screening and prevention.
A cervical cancer diagnosis is scary. It’s also preventable, says one of the nation’s top experts in treating the disease.
John O. Schorge, MD, a gynecologic oncologist and complex gynecologic surgeon at Regional One Health, said physicians have the tools to help women avoid cervical cancer. His mission is making sure more women have access to them.
“In Tennessee, a woman is diagnosed with cervical cancer every day, and every three days a woman dies from cervical cancer,” Dr. Schorge said. “But we can end cervical cancer – it is an entirely preventable disease. It takes information, vaccination, and screening.”
Dr. Schorge said preventing cervical cancer starts with knowing the risks and symptoms.
Smoking is a big risk factor, because its impact on the immune system lets pre-cancerous spots on the cervix grow faster. The other big risk is a human papillomavirus infection. HPV is a sexually-transmitted virus, so using a condom during sex can offer protection.
As for symptoms, Dr. Schorge said the classic sign is bleeding after sex. If you experience this, talk to your health care provider right away.
Knowing risks and symptoms is important, but the best way to prevent cervical cancer is to get the HPV vaccine, Dr. Schorge said. Vaccination is safe, effective, and recommended for patients ages 9-45. It is typically given at ages 11-12 before sexual exposure.
“We can end cervical cancer – it is an entirely preventable disease. It takes information, vaccination, and screening,” says Dr. John Schorge, a nationally-known expert on treating gynecologic cancers.
While an HPV infection usually doesn’t mean you’ll get cancer – there are many types of HPV, and about 12 of them can lead to cancer – there is a direct link between HPV and cervical cancer, along with oropharyngeal, anal, vulvar, vaginal and penile cancers.
The vaccine disrupts that link by introducing virus-like particles, causing the body to produce antibodies. Then, if HPV enters the body, the immune system fights the infection.
“The vaccine prevents 90 percent of cervical and related cancers,” Dr. Schorge noted. “We’ve seen a 65 percent reduction in cervical cancer among the first generation of women who were vaccinated, so we expect a huge drop as more people receive the vaccine.”
Doctors also have excellent screening tools for cervical cancer. “The cervix is the opening to the uterus, so it’s easily visible. We can examine the cervix via a routine pelvic exam and Pap smear,” Dr. Schorge said.
A Pap test will show abnormal cervical cells, which is a sign of an HPV infection.
Since HPV usually takes several years to turn into cancer, “We have a lot of opportunity to find it and do something about it,” Dr. Schorge said. “We can also catch cancer early and before it spreads, which makes it easier to treat.”
Patients with an abnormal Pap test are referred to Regional One Health’s Center for HPV and Dysplasia (CHAD) for additional testing and a biopsy if necessary. In many cases, the CHAD team can remove the abnormal cells and a patient doesn’t need additional treatment.
For patients who do need further treatment, seeing an expert is key to a good outcome. As a gynecologic oncologist, Dr. Schorge specializes in treating cervical, ovarian and uterine cancers.
The HPV vaccine is proven safe and effective at preventing cervical cancer, as well as a number of related cancers. It is recommended for patients ages 9-45.
He said the curative treatment for early stage cervical cancer is a hysterectomy to remove the uterus, cervix, ovaries, fallopian tubes and surrounding tissue. Some patients need chemotherapy or radiation treatment as well.
Dr. Schorge works with a multidisciplinary team and specializes in complex minimally invasive procedures, which have excellent outcomes and less risk and recovery time.
Address health care disparities
Hysterectomies are a prime example of the hardest aspect of reducing cervical cancer diagnoses and deaths: addressing health care disparities.
Dr. Schorge noted African-American women are twice as likely to experience complications from hysterectomy as white women, largely because their procedures are more likely to be done as traditional rather than minimally invasive surgery.
“At Regional One Health, we’ve achieved a rate of 80-90 percent of hysterectomies performed with minimally invasive techniques, which is higher than the national average,” he said. “That means women are going home that same day with just three tiny incisions.”
Providing women access to that type of care is what drew Dr. Schorge to Memphis. He noted women used to have to travel to the suburbs or further for gynecologic oncology, so offering the service right in the city is a chance to make a difference.
“Health disparities play a big role in outcomes, and the Mid-South is the epicenter of health disparities,” he said. “They are difficult to address, and they are perpetuated by discrimination and a lack of social support. We’re here at Regional One Health to be part of the solution.”