The other day, my cervix sent me an email. She's become so tech-savvy lately (!) -- and check out the firm grasp of the English language on her:
This is your cervix writing.
I know, you might've forgotten I existed until you got this e-mail just now (what with vagina and clitoris always hogging all the attention). I bet you wouldn't even recognize me if you saw me -- me, your very own cervix!
And modest, too!
Little Miss Cervix got some help from Planned Parenthood in contacting me to remind me that January is National Cervical Cancer Screening Month (strangely, not identified by my Office Max calendar). But the issue is no laughing matter: Despite the fact that cervical cancer is nearly 100 % curable if caught early, approximately 4,000 American women die of the disease each year. The majority of them have either never had a Pap test or had not been tested within five years of the diagnosis.
According to a recent survey conducted by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 29% of women haven't seen a doctor on a regular basis or had a Pap test in the past year. As a young woman who has always been empowered to take ownership of her mental, physical and sexual health (by my parents, by my education, by my doctors), a number like this is staggering. Cervical cancer ranks among the top cancer killers in third-world countries, precisely because Pap smears are not widely available or performed. But here in the U.S., we've helped bulldoze the disease with a screen so routine, many insurance companies offer them at 100% coverage. I know mine does, but only because I received an email from my husband last week with the subject heading, "Because I know you're a sucker for a free Pap smear..." Again, empowerment.
Not everyone has the means or knowledge necessary, which is why public education is so essential, why all women deserve a more comprehensive understanding of the steps they must take to increase early detection and prevent cervical cancer.
As Planned Parenthood encouraged my cervix to tell me, there are three main ways we can help show our bodies some preventive lovin' (or your daughter's, or your wife's). The first is, say it with me, "Get a Pap test." And why not? The smear is widely regarded as the most effective cancer-screening test in history. (New recommendations suggest some women do not need to be tested annually -- check with your ob/gyn.) But while the fact that PP performed more than one million cervical cancer screenings last year may be a fun piece of trivia to whip out at your next cocktail party, the fact is that is many women go without. The American Social Health Association and the Society of Gynecological Oncologists recently released data showing that those groups who are least likely to have received a Pap test in the past three years are: 18-24 year olds (22%), single women (19%) and those who do not have insurance (24%) -- all considered high-risk groups for developing the disease.
The second way to pave a healthy pathway for your cervix: Get vaccinated. With the Food and Drug Administration's 2006 approval of the Gardasil vaccine to prevent HPV (human papillomavirus, the virus that causes virtually all cases of cervical cancer), young girls have the never-before-realized opportunity to protect themselves against this STI -- one that invades more than six millions American ladies every year, says the CDC. In fact, by the time a woman turns 50 in this country, she has an 80 percent chance of acquiring the virus. More than 100 strains of the virus exist but the majority of women who contract HPV never know, as their immune systems drives it out. Others, though, are unable to rid themselves of the virus. If those women happen to have a certain strain (only a small subset is associated with genital warts and cancer: HPV types 16 and 18 together account for about 70 percent of cervical cancer; types 6 and 11 are responsible for genital warts. Gardasil contains antigens for strains 6, 11, 16 and 18), they may be faced with either an incurable but non-life-threatening infection or abnormal Pap smears and, in a minority of cases, cervical cancer.
The FDA has approved the vaccine for females as young as 9 and up to 26, and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practice, which provides advice to the CDC on the most effective means to thwart vaccine-preventable diseases, recommends immunizing girls at 11 or 12. Learn more here.
If the cervix in question is your daughter's, the advent of the vaccine means having "the talk" has gotten trickier and more urgent. Gardasil has been described by infectious disease experts as the most important preventive measure since the measles vaccine but the question now arises, How can parents talk to their daughters about the series of three shots, which ideally need to be given before sexual activity begins? Many moms and dads are already dreading the initial "birds-and-bees" conversation; now they have to consider bringing up HPV.
Yes, they do. Government surveys show that about seven percent of children have had sex before age 13; 25 percent before age 15. Even if you wish abstinence for your child, reality can get in the way. And it can harm your child. Giving your daughter the vaccine is not permission to start having sex, but protection that will serve her throughout her lifetime.
Lastly, my cervix urged me in classic Times New Roman font, "Have safer sex. Okay, duh. But seriously, when I say safer, I mean using protection every time. Add HPV and cervical cancer to the long list of reasons why safer sex is sexier sex, and remember: Your cervix cannot protect you, so please protect your cervix."
Truer words have never been spoken. By a cervix, especially.
To schedule an appointment for a Pap smear, visit www.plannedparenthood.org to locate your nearest Planned Parenthood health center.