Be aware of cervical cancer risks and precautions

While not as pervasive and common as it once was, cervical cancer remains a threat to many women of varying ages. The American Cancer Society’s most recent estimates for cervical cancer in the United States, based on 2012 statistics, indicate that about 12,170 new cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed in 2013, and approximately 4,220 women will die from cervical cancer.

Non-invasive cervical cancer occurs about four times more often than invasive cervical cancer, and there’s other good news to report: Cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women. Then, between 1955 and 1992, the cervical cancer death rate declined by almost 70 percent due, primarily, to the increased use of the Pap test. This screening procedure can find changes in the cervix before cancer develops. It can also find cervical cancer early — in its most curable stage.

The death rate from cervical cancer continued to decline until 2003. Since then it has remained stable in white women, but has gone down in African American women. In the United States, Hispanic women are most likely to get cervical cancer, followed by African-Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and whites. American Indians and Alaskan natives have the lowest risk of cervical cancer in this country.

Cervical cancer tends to occur in midlife. However, most cases are found in women younger than 50, though it rarely develops in women younger than 20. Many older women do not realize that the risk of developing cervical cancer is still present as they age. More than 20 percent of cases of cervical cancer are found in women over 65. However these cancers rarely occur in women who have been getting regular tests to screen for cervical cancer before they were 65.

Risk factors for cervical cancer

Several risk factors increase your chance of developing cervical cancer. Women without any of these risk factors rarely develop cervical cancer. In thinking about risk factors, it helps to focus on those you can change or avoid…like smoking or human papilloma virus (HPV) infection, rather than those you cannot (such as your age and family history). However, it is still important to know about risk factors that cannot be changed, because it’s even more important for women who have these factors to get regular Pap tests to detect cervical cancer early.

Cervical cancer risk factors include:

Smoking tobacco products: Women who smoke are about twice as likely as non-smokers to get cervical cancer. Smoking exposes the body to many cancer-causing chemicals that affect organs other than the lungs. These harmful substances are absorbed through the lungs and carried in the bloodstream throughout the body. Tobacco by-products have been found in the cervical mucus of women who smoke. Researchers believe that these substances damage the DNA of cervix cells and may contribute to the development of cervical cancer. Smoking also makes the immune system less effective in fighting HPV infections.

Cervical cancer may run in some families. If your mother or sister had cervical cancer, your chances of developing the disease are two to three times higher than if no one in the family had it. Researchers suspect that some instances of this familial tendency are caused by an inherited condition that makes some women less able to fight off HPV infection than others. In other instances, women from the same family as a patient already diagnosed may be more likely to have one or more of the other non-genetic risk factors

Oral contraceptives (birth control pills). There is evidence that taking oral contraceptives (OCs) for a long time increases the risk of cancer of the cervix. Research suggests that the risk of cervical cancer goes up the longer a woman takes OCs, but the risk goes back down again after the OCs are stopped. In one study, the risk of cervical cancer was doubled in women who took birth control pills longer than five years, but the risk returned to normal 10 years after they were stopped. The American Cancer Society believes that a woman and her doctor should discuss whether the benefits of using OCs outweigh the potential risks.

HPV infection. The most important risk factor for cervical cancer is infection by the human papilloma virus. HPV is a group of more than 100 related viruses, some of which cause a type of growth called a papilloma, which are more commonly known as warts. HPV can infect cells on the surface of the skin, genitals, anus, mouth and throat, but not the blood or most internal organs such as the heart or lungs. Different types of HPVs cause warts on different parts of the body. These may barely be visible or they may be several inches across. These are considered low-risk types of HPV because they are seldom linked to cancer.

Certain types of HPV are called high-risk types because they are strongly linked to cancers, including cancer of the cervix, vulva, and vagina in women, penile cancer in men, and anal and oral cancer in both men and women. In fact, doctors believe that a woman must be infected by HPV before she develops cervical cancer.  Infection with HPV is common, and in most people the body is able to clear the infection on its own. Sometimes, however, the infection does not go away and becomes chronic. Chronic infection, especially when it is caused by certain high-risk HPV types, can eventually cause certain cancers, such as cervical cancer.

Diet. Overweight women and women with diets low in fruits and vegetables may be at increased risk for cervical cancer.

Chlamydia infection. Chlamydia is a relatively common kind of bacteria that can infect the reproductive system. It is spread by sexual contact. Chlamydia infection can cause pelvic inflammation, leading to infertility. Some studies have seen a higher risk of cervical cancer in women whose blood test results show evidence of past or current chlamydia infection (compared with women who have normal test results). Infection with chlamydia often causes no symptoms in women. A woman may not know that she is infected at all unless she is tested for chlamydia when she gets her pelvic exam.

Regardless of your age and degree of sexual activity, talk with your physician about your cervical health risk factors, or chances of contracting related factors. Regular testing and awareness are the most effective forms of prevention.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Wash those hands, get your flu shot, and be considerate!

Coughing, sneezing, runny noses…seems everyone around us has those symptoms, and they’re touching us or the things we’re touching, breathing the same air, cooking our meals or otherwise doing their best — however unintentionally — to share their joy. What’s a person to do to protect ourselves and our loved ones?

To start, wash your hands…often. That includes when you come home from anywhere, before you eat in a dining hall or restaurant, after you use a restroom, visit the supermarket, ride a bus or train, or touch an ATM. Hand washing is the simplest, most effective means of preventing the spread of germs. And when it isn’t easy to wash your hands, use a hand sanitizer. Also, don’t share toothbrushes, razors or other personal grooming products, and avoid sharing food, drinks or eating off of one another’s plates. It may be tempting, but it’s only tempting fate!

Next, learn to sneeze into your sleeve or a tissue so you don’t infect innocent passersby or fellow employees. Airborne pathogens spread highly contagious viral or bacterial infections, and incubation time — or the days it takes for germs to turn into something truly icky in your system — allows you to spread those germs to many other people before you even realize you’re infectious. Finally, when you know you’re sick, stay home!

What you need to know about the flu

Influenza — the flu — is not pretty. It’s far worse than a cold, includes body aches and fever, hangs around longer than a typical virus, is contagious, and takes you out of your game for a week or two.

Aside from the short-term misery and lost workdays, flu can have more serious implications. Most people who get the seasonal flu recover just fine. But the seasonal flu also hospitalizes 200,000 people in the United States alone each year. It kills between 3,000 and 49,000 people annually, depending on the variety of flu and length of the season. That’s close to the number of women killed by breast cancer each year, and more than twice the number of people killed by AIDS. And it’s particularly dangerous to children, seniors and adults with other chronic illnesses or autoimmune disorders.

Beyond hand washing, the best prevention is to get a flu shot. Contrary to urban legends, flu vaccines are very safe and can’t infect you with the flu. Injected flu vaccines only contain dead virus, and a dead virus can’t infect you. There is one type of live virus flu vaccine, the nasal vaccine, FluMist. But in this case, the virus is specially engineered to remove the parts of the virus that make people sick. The standard flu vaccine can be dangerous if you’re allergic to eggs, so you should always talk with your doctor before taking the vaccine.

Additionally, antibiotics won’t help you fight the flu, which is not caused by bacteria, but by a virus. Taking antibiotics unnecessarily weakens your body’s ability to fight bacterial illnesses, since many bacteria become resistant to antibiotics due to overuse and bad prescribing practices.

However, there are instances of flu complications that involve bacterial infection. The flu virus can weaken your body and allow bacterial invaders to infect you. Secondary bacterial infections due to the flu include bronchitis, ear infections, sinusitis, and most often, pneumonia. The flu doesn’t peak until February or March, and it hits all across the country, so if you haven’t had your flu shot there’s still plenty of time to protect yourself and your family.

So, dress warmly when it’s cold, eat healthy foods, avoid going places when you’re not feeling well, and wash your hands regularly. Winter can be a blast if you’re not spending it hacking and sneezing!

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Sure, it’s winter; now get outdoors and enjoy it!

There’s just so much television, video games, and movies we can stand. Fresh air and exercise are good for us, and so are the vitamins the sun provides. So while winter drives many people indoors to weather the deep freeze and shorter days, the season also abounds in natural beauty best appreciated while outside; walking or hiking, sledding, skiing, snowmobiling, ice skating, ice fishing, working in the yard, or whatever gets you outdoors. 

No matter your choice of recreational activity, consider making plans to get outside, but take appropriate measures to protect yourself. That includes dressing for the weather, making sure you’re properly hydrated, wearing sunscreen, knowing your limitations, and always respecting Mother Nature.

Dressing in layers and wearing the right types of materials are critical for keeping yourself warm in the cold weather. But when planning your outdoor wardrobe, moisture management is also an important consideration. To keep the body warm during high-energy activities, clothing should transport moisture away from the skin to the outer surface of the fabric where it can evaporate. Also, look for garments made from the new stretch fabrics for better fit and performance.

Cotton is a poor choice for insulation, because it absorbs moisture and loses any insulating value when it gets wet. Instead, moisture-wicking synthetics, which move moisture away from the skin and stay light, are the best choice for active winter sports like skiing, snowboarding, hiking or climbing. Not only do synthetic fabrics wick moisture away from the skin, they dry quickly and help keep you warm in the process.

Your next layer should be a lightweight stretchy insulator, such as a breathable fleece sweater or vest. The final part of your cold-weather wear should be a lightweight and versatile shell jacket. Fabrics like three-layer Gore-Tex and Windstopper allow companies to create shells that are ultra lightweight while remaining waterproof, windproof, and breathable. For aerobic activities, a shell’s ventilating features are particularly important. Look for underarm zippers, venting pockets, and back flaps.

Always bring a hat and gloves, regardless of the weather or your activity level. Proper foot protection is critical, as well — you should be wearing insulated and water-proof shoes or boots, and synthetic socks that won’t absorb sweat. As with the rest of your clothing, synthetic materials work best for protecting you against the extremes. Look for fleece hats made with Windstopper fabric, gloves and mittens layered with Gore-Tex and fleece, and socks made of synthetic, moisture-wicking materials.

Bring an abundance of water or sports drinks when you recreate outdoors, and try to avoid caffeine or alcohol — both actually dry you out, instead of hydrating, and alcohol lowers your body temperature. Also, make sure you have a cell phone, that somebody knows where you are, and when you’ll be returning. And remember to wear sunscreen — the sun’s ultraviolet rays remain potent, even in the winter, and hydrating your skin with a UV-protective moisturizer will help protect you from wind and other elements.

Finally, remember to practice plain old common sense, and know your limitations. Many winter sports injuries happen at the end of the day, when people overexert themselves to finish that one last run or hike one more mile before the day’s end. A majority of these injuries can easily be prevented if participants prepare by keeping in good physical condition, stretch before you get started, stay alert and stop when you are tired or in pain.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

How does your company promote and encourage wellness?

Every month, this column encourages employers to help their employees embrace health and wellness opportunities through education, collaboration, and personal/team goal setting. Savvy employers promote these goals through open communication and support, establishing a vision for staff, and rewarding for improved healthy behaviors.

It’s a new year, a time that many people establish personal benchmarks for how they’d like to improve their health and wellness. It’s human nature to take a fresh look at ourselves and our lives, especially after the gluttony and chaos of another holiday season. We traditionally determine we’re going to do better, whether it’s weight loss, exercise, smoking cessation, stress reduction or by addressing the health side effects from not focusing on these important tasks — like high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels, raised blood sugar, lack of sleep, overtaxed joints…it’s a long list.

Some employers set company goals, sponsor team walks or charity-related events, reward for total weight lost, or the number of smokers who quit. Others help supplement the cost of fitness center memberships, sponsor on-site classes, encourage healthy potluck lunches and dinners, host health screenings, and more. There’s no perfect recipe for success — every step counts, and company efforts vary from culture to culture.

The best stories about health and wellness are your stories — the formal and informal ways you and your company promote, support, communicate and reward wellness efforts, small and not-so-small. Whether they involve one or many, we’re looking for examples of what you’re doing at your company, how you’re doing it, and who’s involved.

Improving individual and organizational health is incremental. While we love “big success stories,” we’re looking for best practices to share with other companies like yours. How do you communicate wellness objectives? What programs or efforts are taking place onsite during the day, or before or after hours? How are you setting goals, measuring and recognizing achievement? Who is involved? Regardless of your focus, we’d like to hear about it. Then, we can share your efforts with others also participating in CBIA’s Healthy Connections.

Someone from CBIA may contact you to ask about your efforts. We’ll take small steps and combine them into articles that demonstrate what’s going on among our member companies, or profile your company and program individually. If you want to contact us to tell us what you’re doing, please send us a note at michelle.molyneux@cbia.com.

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!