Cervical Cancer 101
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month! The cervix is the opening at the base of the uterus that widens during childbirth to allow for the passage of the baby. It also allows for the passage of menstrual fluid from the uterus, and sperm needs to travel through the cervix in order to reach the uterus. Cervical cancer is caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). As Dr. Tiffany says in Episode 38: Cervical Monologues, "Nobody should die of cervical cancer" as it is one of the most preventable and curable cancers.
Cervical cancer prevention occurs in multiple stages:
Sexual Education: Health education is the first step to making sure a populace is able to make well-informed decisions for their health and well-being.
Vaccination: Teenagers ages 11 up to age 26 can receive the HPV vaccine which immunizes against many, but not all, high-risk strains of HPV, which can cause cervical cancer as well as throat and anal cancers, and genital warts.
Screening: All women should begin cervical cancer screening via pap test (Papanicolaou Test) at age 21, repeated every 3 years. Routine screening can detect cervical cell changes in time to for early intervention.
Timely Follow-Up: Together, routine screening and timely follow-up are an effective method for preventing cervical cancer. If an abnormal pap or HPV test comes back, a provider may recommend a colposcopy to get a closer look at the cervix. They may also be able to remove the potentially dangerous cells before they can turn into cancer.
Early Treatment: Cervical cancer progresses slowly: it generally takes about 10 to 15 years for HPV to develop into cervical cancer. The slow progression is a large reason why cervical cancer is relatively easy to prevent and, when detected early, to treat and potentially cure.
Black women die of cervical cancer at a higher rate than any other race or ethnicity. One of the contributing factors is lack of access to gynecologists in their surrounding area and lack of knowledge of what to symptoms to look out for. These social determinants of health have a negative impact on outcomes for Black patients with cervical cancer. Additionally, while there are programs that provide aid for cancer screening, that aid often falls short of providing additional resources for diagnostics and treatments.
The NCCC-National Cervical Cancer Coalition is a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving women with, or at risk for, cervical cancer and HPV disease. In 2011, NCCC merged with American Sexual Health Association (ASHA), a nonprofit with a long history of educating and raising awareness on sexual health issues. The NCCC has thousands of members around the world, and chapters across the U.S. NCCC offers support services for NCCC local chapters whose mission is to educate their community about HPV and cervical health issues;Free materials that educate about HPV and cervical health, including cervical cancer; and tools for prevention, detection and screening awareness. Find a local chapter here.
Cervivor is an online organization dedicated to creating a community of and for Cervical Cancer survivors and educating that community. They use a 3 pronged approach to this education:
Cervivor School: An in-person retreat (currently on hold) where members can learn all about HPV and Cervical Cancer; and hear stories of other survivors and thrives!
CervivorTV: Video interviews with survivors, healthcare providers, leading researchers, advocacy group leaders, and policymakers.
Cervivor.org: Their website is chock full of additional learning resources, including tools to become advocates, upcoming events, and connection for newly diagnosed women with survivors who can help them get through the hardest of days.
For more on HPV vaccination, check out Episode 3: Iatrophobia and Vaccines
For more information on whether you or your loved ones are eligible for free or low-cost breast and cervical cancer screenings and follow-up via the Breast and Cervical Cancer Control Program (BCCCP), visit https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/nbccedp/or https://bcccp.ncdhhs.gov (for NC residents).