Closing the Gap in Cervical Cancer
- Black women are more than 1.5 times likely to die of cervical cancer than white women. There are large racial disparities in cancer care and cancer outcomes. Colon cancer is another cancer that disproportionately affects Black people.
- Every year in the U.S., approximately 14,480 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer.
- Symptoms of cervical cancer include abnormal vaginal bleeding, unusual vaginal discharge, pain during sex, and pain in the pelvic region.
Kimberly Williams, a mother of two, was diagnosed at age 42 with cervical cancer. She tells NPR, “My doctor called and said that he wanted to see me in his office, so I was very nervous. When I went in, he said, ‘Kiddo, you have cancer. But we’re gonna fight it.'”Read More
Williams had been unaware that she was potentially carrying human papillomavirus (HPV); this virus leads to over 95% of cervical cancer cases. She says, “No one ever told me my HPV status. No one ever said, ‘Hey, this is something that you need to be checking….’ My story may have been different,” says Williams.
If cervical cancer is caught early, the outlook is good. But Black women, like Williams, are more likely to have the disease diagnosed at a later stage. Not only that, but Black women are more than 1.5 times likely to die of cervical cancer than white women, according to a report from the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice (SRBWI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW). The report also found that cervical cancer death rates worsen with increased age.
Things like insurance and healthcare access, lack of sexual health education, along with distrust of the medical community by minority communities, can lead to outcomes like these, experts say. It’s vital that we close the gap in cancer care.
Understanding Cervical Cancer
Williams survived her cervical cancer and treated it with chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and a radical hysterectomy. She says, “When I went through the chemo and radiation, I was actually divorced at the time. So I was doing a lot of things, along with my two children, kind of by myself…And I think that was one of the reasons why I wanted to advocate for women. Because it was so difficult.”
Williams is one of approximately 14,480 women diagnosed each year in the U.S. with cervical cancer. And nearly a third of women diagnosed will pass away from this disease.
Screening for cervical cancer is done via pap smear and HPV DNA testing, which is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the best screening option for cervical cancer. Cervical cancer treatments may include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Getting screened for cervical cancer is critically important because an earlier diagnosis may mean a better prognosis and broader treatment options.
The most common symptoms of cervical cancer can include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as bleeding after vaginal sex, bleeding after menopause, bleeding and spotting between periods, or having (menstrual) periods that are longer or heavier than usual.
- Bleeding after douching may also occur.
- An unusual discharge from the vagina − the discharge may contain some blood and may occur between your periods or after menopause.
- Pain during sex.
- Pain in the pelvic region.
Closing the Gap in Cancer Care
Like cervical cancer, triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) and colon cancer are two additional cancers that have higher mortality rates in the Black community. In an earlier interview, Atlanta-based oncologist Dr. Anita Johnson outlines ways to close the gap in cancer care. “The mortality rates for African-American women is substantially higher than Caucasian women,” she explains.
“They often present with triple-negative breast cancer, which is a more aggressive type of breast cancer that always requires chemotherapy and has a higher recurrence rate,” Dr. Johnson says. “I’m here in Atlanta, where we have some of the highest death rates from breast cancer in the country. And so when we look at different metropolitan areas where there are more black women, but still, they’re not being screened adequately,” says Dr. Johnson.
“And then when we look at the stage for stage,” she says, “the outcomes are much worse as compared to Caucasian women. When we look at the standard of care treatment options based on stage, in some cases, African-American women are not being treated with the same standard of care treatment options.”