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Pap That! A Cervical Cancer Awareness Primer

Every January is cervical cancer awareness month! So this year, Empower Her Health created a cervical cancer primer in an effort to improve knowledge around cervical cancer, and to reduce stigma associated with pap smears.

So read on SISTARS! ⭐️

What causes cervical cancer?

Chronic infection from the human papilloma virus (HPV) is the most common cause of cervical cancer. Over time, HPV can lead to chronic inflammation, pre-cancerous, and cancerous changes to the cervix. HPV is transmitted through oral, anal, and vaginal sexual contact. This virus is also known to cause other cancers as well as genital warts.

Where is my cervix?

The cervix is the bottom portion of your womb that lives in the vagina. If you place your fingers inside your vagina, you may be able to feel it.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

The symptoms may be varied, however you know your body better than anyone else. If you feel something is not right, definitely make an appointment with your doctor to be evaluated.

Is cervical cancer common?

Cervical cancer is the 4th most common cancer among women, with 12,000 cases of cervical cancer diagnosed annually, and 4200 related deaths. Black and Hispanic/Latino women in rural counties made up a larger proportion of new cases at every cancer stage. Black women are also more likely die from cervical cancer. Racial and ethnic disparities reflect differences in access to quality care, timely screening, insurance status, and socio-economic factors that impacts one's ability to seek care when needed.

Cervical cancer disproportionately affects folks who are:

🏥 Uninsured - they are more likely to skip screenings due to inability to pay or access and present late to care

📚 With poor health literacy - they may not understand how frequently they need to be monitored for cancer

🛣 Rural women- because they often don’t have easy access to screening, or high quality care

Have you heard of Henrietta Lacks?

Henrietta Lacks was a Black woman raised in rural Virginia in 1920. She was diagnosed with one of the most aggressive strains cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University, in 1951, the only hospital in the area treating Black patients. She died of her disease at the young age of 31 years old, just 9 months after her diagnosis.

During her treatment for cervical cancer, cervical biopsy samples were taken without her permission and given to Dr. George Otto Gray, a cancer researcher at Hopkins. He used her cells to develop the HeLa cell line, the first immortal cell line used in biomedical research. These cells were very unusual and a good fit for medical experimentation because they reproduced at a very fast rate, and lived longer than traditional research cells.

The HeLa cell line lives today! It has contributed to many medical advances, including the polio vaccine, cancer drugs, IVF treatments, and even the COVID 19 vaccine!

The issue of using someone’s body for experimentation without their full consent raises many ethical red flags. She nor her family ever gave permission to use, and profit from her cells. Her story, and many like hers, has contributed to medical mistrust in Black communities. To learn more, read her story!

What are the four principles of medical ethics?

What is informed consent?

What is a pap smear?

A pap smear is a screening test to detect cervical cancer, precancer, and HPV infection. The doctor takes a small sampling of cells from your cervix during a pelvic exam. The cells are then sent to a lab and examined for abnormalities. They may or may not test for HPV depending on your age and risk. The pap smear is the most reliable method we have detect cervical cancer early.

When should I start getting a pap and how often do I need one?

Despite these recommendations, be sure to check in with your doctor to ensure that you know how often you need a pap. It may be different depending on your medical history, and current medical conditions.

Is it true the pap smear exam is painful?

Although the exam is generally painless, many individuals report discomfort or poor treatment. This may invoke fear, or trauma. These sentiments are often overlooked during the exam, ESPECIALLY in women of color.

TIPS to improve your experience

✅ Come prepared if you have anxiety around the pap exam. Bring something to distract and relax you: calming music, a game on your electronic device, or happy photos to look at.

✅ Take slow, deep breaths during the exam and imagine you are in your favorite place! Deep breathing and visualization help to ease discomfort, and relax you. Try this if you prefer to be more present.

✅ Let your doctor know if you have Pap fear so that they may talk you through the exam or refer you to a therapist to work through trauma.

✅ End the exam if you feel dehumanized, or that your body is not treated with respect. Report poor treatment.

How can I prevent cervical cancer?

With all this talk of cervical cancer, HPV, and pap smears, there are safe and effective ways to prevent cervical cancer!

Definitely get pap smears at regular screening intervals to detect abnormalities early.

There is also an HPV vaccine! The vaccine is available to individuals age 9-26. Individuals aged 27-45 may also be offered the vaccine depending on their health status.

The HPV vaccine is very effective! In the 10 years since its introduction, we have seen a 86% drop in HPV infections in teens, and a 71% drop in young adults. We have also seen a 40% drop in cervical precancers!

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