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It was just about a year ago that Lauren Sanson first went to the emergency room for abnormal bleeding. Birth control helped with that, but her problems persisted and by October, swelling in her hands and kidney problems sent her back to the hospital where the 28-year-old mother of four got the bad news: She has cervical cancer.

The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene estimates that 230 Maryland women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2015, and that more than 70 women will die from the disease.

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Sanson is currently undergoing chemotherapy at Johns Hopkins for the cancer that has now spread to the blood vessels in her legs and her lymph nodes.

"The doctor told me I have a zero-percent survival rate, however I assume I can go into remission because they are going through these treatments," said Sanson, who lived most of her life in Westminster before moving to Baltimore in November to be closer to Hopkins for treatments. "The way they put it, the chemo will buy more time but it won't save my life."

After she completes chemotherapy, Sanson said her doctors have a number of cancer treatment research studies she can join that might help and that she seems to be tolerating treatment well. When she reflects on her situation however, she wishes she had been more informed about cervical cancer.

Sanson had been told by several gynecologists that she had abnormal cervical lesions, but she wasn't aware that these could turn into cancer. Neither had she received the vaccine that protects against several strains of the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus, which can cause cervical cancer.

"A lot of women are very uneducated about what [HPV] is and where it comes from and what it can do," she said. "I don't think doctors are informing people enough, they are not explaining it enough. ... It's something I should have researched, and I didn't."

There is often a fair amount of discomfort on the part of both doctors and patients when it comes to sexual health, according to Fred Wyand, media manager for the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, and he said this discomfort sometimes keeps doctors, patients and parents from having important discussions about screenings and vaccines. It's one of the issues the coalition is trying to highlight in January, which it has declared National Cervical Health Awareness Month.

"HPV and cervical cancer are often just overlooked and lost in the sea of other cancers and other health conditions," Wyand said. "The important thing is just to get the conversation started."

Maryland health agencies are also on board with Cervical Health Awareness Month. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is encouraging pap tests for women and HPV vaccination for preteen girls, while the VA Maryland Health Care System is encouraging all veteran women that are enrolled for Veterans Affairs health care to get checked for cervical cancer in conjunction with their other New Year's resolutions.

It's a recommendation Sanson can endorse from experience.

"I strongly suggest women get checked, especially if they have abnormal bleeding," she said.

While cervical cancer deaths are largely preventable by screening, which catches cancer early, and by vaccination, which prevents some — but not all — cancers from ever forming.

"Even if you get the vaccine, you still need to be in a screening program," said Dr. Catherine Staropoli, medical director of women's health at the VA Maryland Health Care System. "The vaccines only cover certain subtypes of HPV, there are lots of other high-risk sub types out there and people maybe have been previously infected before being vaccinated."

Screening is also easier than in the past, according to Staropoli. Advances in understanding the HPV virus and in detection have made it easier to determine who is at the highest and lowest levels of risk for developing cervical cancer.

"We used to tell women to come every year for a pap smear; that was the gospel of pap smears," she said. "Now, the intervals at which people are screened are more individualized to people's personal health risks. We are much better able to identify people at low risk of developing cervical cancer. Those patients don't need to come back as often, maybe every three years, or every five years, especially if they don't have HPV."

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In Carroll County, a programmable road sign on Center Street in Westminster flashes the availability of mammograms and pap tests for low-income women at the Carroll County Health Department, which sits on top of the hill behind the sign. While many women with insurance or means can simply schedule an appointment with their primary care physician and veterans with the VA Maryland Health Care System, the Health Department has long offered services for those individuals who fall through the coverage cracks, according to Cindy Marucci-Bosley, head of nursing at the Health Department.

"We have done Family Planning/GYN since the inception of the Health Department in the '60s. Currently, we have a Reproductive Health clinic which combines Family Planning and STD [services]. ... We also have the Breast Cervical Cancer Program, which offers education and free mammograms and pap smears to income-eligible women," she said. "We talk with each client about HPV, but are unable to offer the vaccine due to parental permission issues and funding issues. If a client has a primary care doctor, we encourage them to ask about vaccination. We are continually looking for funding to help with this issue."

The HPV vaccine has only been available since 2006, but is becoming an increasingly important component of cervical health and sexual health, according to Wyand. Recommended for women younger than 26, it is ideally given to preteen girls and boys as early as age 11 to ensure it is given before they become sexually active.

"Something like 70 to 80 percent of sexually active adults will contract HPV. HPV is not some exotic thing that happens to other people, it happens to all of us," Wyand said. "HPV is the human papilloma virus, it affects the whole species — males as well as females."

Sanson is staying positive through her course of treatment and hopeful that a post-chemotherapy CAT scan will show her cancer has been reduced. At the same time, she is adamant about the importance of women getting tested for HPV and cervical cancer, and educating themselves. And when she thinks of her children, even though she knows the HPV vaccine cannot prevent all cervical cancers, it's something she plans on giving her two daughters.

"I would recommend it. Just for safety purposes. [HPV is] definitely nothing to play around with," she said. "I would do it at [age] 11 because I know what's going on."

Reach staff writer Jon Kelvey at 410-857-3317 or jon.kelvey@carrollcountytimes.com.

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More Information

To learn more about cervical cancer and HPV, go to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene website at

To learn more about Laura Sanson or contribute to her medical fund, go to http://www.gofundme.com/h0kn84.

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