Latina women are especially at risk for this cancer
Hispanic and Latina women are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with and 30% more likely to die from a relatively preventable and curable condition, according to data from the federal government.
In 2018, more than 2,400 Hispanic women in the U.S. were diagnosed with cervical cancer and at much higher rates than non-Hispanic white women and at higher rates than black women.
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina, and occurs most often in women over the age of 30. It was once one of the most common causes of cancer death in the country, according to the American Cancer Society, but has dropped in occurrence thanks to an increase in the use of the Pap test.
However, Hispanic/Latina women undergo significantly fewer Pap tests than non-Hispanic white and black women.
“Screening with Pap smears and/or HPV testing allow us to detect changes in the cervix before they develop into cancer or to detect cancer early when it is easier to treat and cure,” says Dr. Tanya Pulver, a gynecologic oncologist at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center.
You should talk to a doctor about whether a Pap test is right for you.
The American Cancer Society points to several barriers that Hispanic and Latina women face to receiving a Pap test, including:
- Limited access to healthcare
- Low education on risks
- Embarrassment and pain during the test
- Providers who cannot communicate in Spanish
In addition, because over 90% of cervical cancers are caused by a long-lasting infection from Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, ensuring there is widespread HPV vaccination can have drastic effects in reducing cervical cancer.
While those rates have increased, 51% of adolescents have not completed the HPV vaccine series, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“Along with making sure women undergo screening for cervical cancer, preventing HPV infection is one of the best ways to reduce the number of cervical cancer diagnoses, and increasing vaccinations is the most effective way to do that ” Pulver says.
In addition, improving overall access to healthcare, educating women on the importance of follow-up after abnormal Pap or HPV test results, and reducing the embarrassment and discomfort women often feel when having pelvic exams or discussing their bodies remain significant areas of opportunity, she says. Other risk factors include tobacco use, obesity, having a suppressed immune system as with HIV infection, early onset of sexual activity, and multiple sexual partners.
Although HPV is sexually transmitted, it is important for women to know the virus is extremely common among both men and women and that having HPV is not a sign of sexual promiscuity. It is vital to remove the shame and stigma associated with HPV and cervical cancer so women feel more comfortable undergoing screening and treatment for any abnormal test results.
Ultimately, much of the work to limit the spread of cervical cancer comes down to the relationship a patient has with their physician and regular, timely check-ups.
“Patients need to feel like they can speak up and have a voice in their care, particularly if they have concerns,” Dr. Pulver says.
In addition, you should tell your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding (between periods or after intercourse)
- Vaginal bleeding after menopause, even if it is just light spotting or only occurs once
- Heavy periods that last longer than usual
- Pelvic pain, including pain during intercourse
- Increased vaginal discharge
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