By: J. Chevonte’ Alexander
Numbers do not lie. Statistics show African Americans rank at the top for many diseases. And, cervical cancer is one of them. There’s a huge racial disparity when it comes to cervical cancer in the United States. According to a new study published in the journal Cancer, Black women are dying of the cancer at twice the rate of white women.
Cervical cancer starts in the cells lining the cervix which is the lower part of the uterus. The fetus grows in the body of the uterus. The cervix connects the body of the uterus to the vagina. According to the American Cancer Society, there will be an estimated “1,685,210 new cancer cases and 595,690 cancer deaths” in the United States, this year alone. That’s approximately 4,620 new cases and 1,600 deaths every day.
Sarah Temkin, M.D., director of gynecologic oncology at Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center says, “previous studies have suggested a complex interplay of biological, socioeconomic and cultural factors underlying this difference. Although Black women are screened for cervical cancer at similar rates to other racial and ethnic groups, poor follow-up of abnormal screenings and structural bias in the healthcare system leads to differential access to specialty care may lead to higher stage at diagnosis for racial and ethnic minorities.”
Cervical cancer is one of the few diseases that’s preventable and curable if detected early. While cervical cancer occurs most often in Hispanic women, Black women tend to have lower 5-year survival rates and die more often than any other race.
The best way to avoid developing cervical cancer is prevention. So, what are some preventative things women can do for cervical cancer?
“The HPV vaccine,” comments Dr. Temkin. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “HPV is short for human papillomavirus and is a group of more than 150 related viruses. HPV is named for the warts (papillomas) some HPV types can cause. Some other HPV types can lead to cancer.” Men and women can get cancer of mouth/throat and anus/rectum caused by HPV infections. Men can also get penile HPV cancer. In women, HPV infection can also cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar HPV cancers. But there are vaccines that can prevent infection with the types of HPV that most commonly cause cancer. HPV is transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact. You can get HPV by having vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who has the virus. It is most commonly spread during vaginal or anal sex. HPV is so common that nearly all men and women get it at some point in their lives. HPV can be passed even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms. You can develop symptoms years after being infected, making it hard to know when you first became infected.
In most cases, HPV goes away on its own and does not cause any health problems. But when HPV doesn’t go away, it can cause health problems like genital warts and cancer.
The American Cancer Society recommends that women follow these guidelines to help find cervical cancer early. Following these guidelines can also find pre-cancers, which can be treated to keep cervical cancer from forming.
- All women should begin cervical cancer screening at age 21.
- Women aged 21 to 29, should have a Pap test every 3 years. HPV testing should not be used for screening in this age group (it may be used as a part of follow-up for an abnormal Pap test).
- Beginning at age 30, the preferred way to screen is with a Pap test combined with an HPV test every 5 years. This is called co-testing and should continue until age 65.
- Another reasonable option for women 30 to 65 is to get tested every 3 years with just the Pap test.
- Use condoms: There is no such thing as absolutely safe sex (except for abstinence) BUT barrier protection like condoms greatly reduce the risk of transmitting cervical cancer-causing HPV.
- Don’t smoke: reduces the risk of cervical pre-cancer and cancer.
- Get regular pap smears.
“See your gynecologist regularly and get your pap smear when recommended,” says Dr. Temkin. “Pap smear screening allows premalignant lesions to be identified at a time when they can be easily treated, before they become malignant (cancerous).”
So, what is the biggest takeaway? Don’t wait for symptoms to appear. Be screened regularly.
References  Singh GK, Williams SD, Siahpush M, Mulhollen A. Socioeconomic, rural-urban, and racial inequalities in US cancer mortality: Part I—All cancers and lung cancer and Part II—Colorectal, prostate, breast, and cervical cancers. Journal of cancer epidemiology. 2012;2011.