When women go through treatment for cancer, friends and family are often there to support them and to celebrate as they recover. As an ob/gyn, I've talked with women who are being treated for gynecological cancers, and many have said that they wish they had known as much about how to prevent cancer before their diagnosis as they do afterward. The truth is we spend a lot of time focused on cancer, especially when there is a bodily change that may signify it, and we spend very little time and effort focused on what it takes to prevent cancer
Even though January's Cervical Health Awareness Month is coming to an end, it's not the only opportunity we have to focus on a form of cancer that is nearly 100 percent preventable. Routine screenings for cervical cancer can detect precancerous conditions and allow health care providers to treat them before they progress. And vaccination against human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer, can prevent the initial infection that leads to cancer.
On an almost daily basis, Planned Parenthood health centers, like other providers of primary preventive care for women, see how important routine screenings is. A 25-year-old woman in Little Rock came to Planned Parenthood for contraception when she was "fresh out of the military." Having been busy on active duty for five years, she had not had regular cervical cancer screenings. Her Pap test revealed cervical dysplasia -- a precancerous condition. It was close to becoming cervical cancer, and she was treated in the "nick of time," thus preventing progression to cancer. If the precancerous cells had not been removed she probably would have lost her entire cervix, which would have left her infertile, or even worse, she might have lost her life. The happy ending to this story is that because she got the necessary screening and treatment, she was spared cervical cancer and was able to have the family she wanted.
Annually in the U.S. about 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and for 4,000 of them, it's fatal. African-American women with cervical cancer are twice as likely to lose their lives to this disease than white women. That's because African-American women face greater obstacles to obtaining timely health care and as a result cervical cancer is more likely to have progressed to a later stage by the time it is detected.
So what steps can we take toward remaining cervical cancer-free? For starters, if you're 26 or younger you can receive the HPV vaccine. HPV vaccines are one of the most exciting medical developments in recent years. The vaccine protects against the two strains of the virus responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. The vaccination is most effective when the shots are completed before sexual intimacy. HPV infection can occur through skin to skin contact -- genital rubbing, mutual masturbation -- or sharing of sex toys. Because the vaccine protects best when you have never been exposed to sexual intimacy, it is recommended that boys and girls are vaccinated between 9 and 12. For those who are between 13 and 26, the vaccine may still be protective, but be sure to ask whether insurance will cover the cost if you are older. Regardless of whether you have the vaccine, cervical cancer screening is still required if you want the best strategy to prevent cervical cancer.
Beginning at age 21, women should get Pap tests -- even during periods without sexual activity, even if their partners are also female, even if they are not using prescription contraception, and even if they've been through menopause.
Updated screening guidelines recommend Pap tests every three years for women ages 21-29. For women ages 30-64, screenings are recommended every three years if the test is negative or every five years if both Pap and HPV tests are given simultaneously and both are negative.
Planned Parenthood health centers provide 585,000 Pap tests annually and provide advanced testing and treatment for thousands of women with abnormal Paps and precancerous conditions. Most importantly, these services are available to all women so taking charge of your cervical health is within your reach. We African-American women can change our reality when it comes to cervical cancer.