January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. Every new year brings a sobering reminder that cervical cancer is still taking the lives of more than 4,000 women every year in the U.S. This number is simply too high. So is 36,000 – the number of new cervical cancer cases occurring in the U.S. every year.
These startling statistics are starker when considering the impact of cervical cancer on women of color. More than 40 percent of Black women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer die each year. As a Black physician specializing in Obstetrics and Gynecology, I strive to educate my patients and fellow physicians about cervical cancer prevention and treatment so that we can save more lives.
The good news is that cervical cancer is one of the most preventable and treatable cancers because of screening tests and the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. Unfortunately, there are some misconceptions about the HPV vaccine. I frequently remind my patients of these facts:
All women are at risk for cervical cancer. It occurs most often in women over age 30.
Starting at age 21, women should be screened for cervical cancer.
Long-lasting infection with certain types of HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer.
HPV is a very common virus that can pass from one person to another during sex.
The HPV vaccine is the best way to prevent getting cervical cancer. All children are eligible at age 9.
Just as communities of color have been hit harder by COVID-19 than other populations, Black and Brown women are disproportionately impacted by cervical cancer. Black women are more likely to develop cervical cancer and they are more likely to die of cervical cancer than white women. In part, this is because Black women often do not have the same access to high-quality care, and when they are treated, their concerns and symptoms are, in many cases, ignored or misdiagnosed.
I am grateful to work for an organization that prioritizes health equity and the health and well-being of Black women. Kaiser Permanente is a leader in cervical cancer prevention. We are in the top 5% for screening and HPV vaccination rates. By leveraging our integrated electronic medical record, we ensure that all members get the screening they need to prevent cervical cancer and our doctors have early conversations with parents about the HPV vaccination. Kaiser Permanente in the Mid-Atlantic region has reached a vaccination rate of 75% for those eligible and a screening rate of 90% of eligible patients– more than 21% above the national average. We know first-hand the dramatic positive impact that proactive healthcare can have on the lives of so many women and their families.
I encourage regular cervical cancer screenings for my patients. This means a regular Pap test beginning at age 21. For decades, the Pap test was the gold standard for cervical cancer screenings, but research indicates that in some cases both an HPV test and a Pap test may be the optimal protocol. For women between ages 21 to 65, your doctor may recommend waiting three years between Pap tests if your test is normal. If my patients can do so safely, I remind them to keep up with regular screenings despite the pandemic. Too many cancers have gone undetected during 2020 and 2021 because people delayed their cancer screenings.
I also help patients understand the benefits of getting the HPV vaccine for their children. All children ages 11–12-years should get the HPV vaccine to protect against cancers caused by HPV infections. Eighty-five percent of people will get an HPV infection in their lifetime. Almost every unvaccinated person who is sexually active will get HPV at some time in their life.
As we raise awareness about cervical cancer this month, I urge everyone to get the HPV vaccine, for yourself and for children ages 9 and up. I also remind women, especially women of color, to take care of yourselves and ask your doctor about your cervical cancer risk and regular screening. And finally, I encourage patients and providers to have proactive conversations about HPV and cervical cancer. Together, with proper screening and vaccination, we can help prevent cervical cancer and ultimately save lives.
Dr. Ada Emarievbe is an OB-GYN at Kaiser Permanente.