The rate at which women are dying from cervical cancer is higher than experts believed—especially for black women. An ob-gyn weighs in on what you can do to protect yourself
The risk of dying from cervical cancer has been significantly underestimated, especially for black women, according to research published in the journal Cancer. The study found black women are dying from cervical cancer at a rate 77 percent higher than previously thought, while white women are dying at a rate 47 percent higher.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) currently reports an estimated 12,820 new cases of invasive cervical cancer are diagnosed each year, killing more than 4,000 women, but this study suggests that number could be much higher, as previous data included women who had hysterectomies (a procedure that removes the cervix entirely and therefore eliminates the risk of cancer). With those women who had surgery eliminated from the equation, the percentage of women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer and then later die from it is higher.
Thankfully, there's some good news. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that cervical cancer is also one of the easiest cancers to prevent. So what can you do?
Jennifer Gunter, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn and author of the book The Preemie Primer offers these four tips on how to keep yourself safe—which includes, ahem, involving your partner.
1. Get PAP smears and HPV tests per ACOG guidelines.
Cervical cancer has decreased more than 50 percent in the past 30 years thanks to prevention techniques such as the Pap test, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (Go science!) In other words, heed the experts' advice. The ACOG and ACS recommend women start getting screened for cervical cancer at age 21, irrespective of their sexual activity. During your 20s, you should be getting a Pap smear every three years, and after age 30, every five years. If you experience any discomfort or other changes or symptoms, consult your doctor, who may recommend a more frequent Pap test.
Oh, and while were here: The Pap test and the HPV test have proven successful in locating precancerous cells, which can be treated and stopped before they become a serious problem.
2. Get the HPV vaccine.
Ideally, Dr. Gunter says, the best way to prevent cervical cancer is to prevent the spread of human papillomavirus (HPV) through a vaccine. Considering that the National Cancer Institute reports that "virtually all" cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV and that just two strains are responsible for more than 70 percent of all cases, we suggest you listen to this advice.
The good news is that the vaccine is working. A 2016 study from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that within six years of getting vaccinated, there was a 64 percent decrease in HPV among 14- to 19-year-olds and a 34 percent decrease in 20- to 24-year-olds. (If you want more info, check out Planned Parenthood.)
3. Ask your partners about their HPV vaccine status.
Dr. Gunter suggests bringing the topic up to your partner too. Perhaps more uncomfortable—but if it saves your life it's absolutely worth a few awkward minutes. The CDC says that HPV infections are so common that "nearly all men and women" will get one at some point in their lives. A study in 2011 from the Journal of Infectious Diseases found that for heterosexual couples where one partner had HPV, there was a 20 percent chance that the other person would acquire HPV within six months.
Not convinced? A new study published in JAMA Oncology looked at the genital swabs of nearly 2,000 men to find the prevalence of HPV infection. The terrifying conclusion: 45 percent of them had it. And not just the non-serious kind, but the type that can actually cause cervical cancer (among others).
4. Use condoms.
This may seem obvious, but among talk of vaccines and screenings, it's important to remember that condoms still offer protection. HPV is transmitted sexually, after all. Plus, considering that STD rates are at an all-time high, you should be using one anyway.
While this study is definitely useful, Dr. Gunter is quick to point out that it opens up more questions—such as why black women (and older women) are more likely to die from cervical cancer. "We don't know if they didn't get screened or if they didn't get the right follow-up," she says. "Or if their cancers were different somehow."
Overall, the study is an important reminder that women of all ages should be getting regular checkups with an ob-gyn, including Pap smears and HPV testing. "The mortality rates should be lower," says Dr. Gunter. "I think we need more answers."