January is cervical cancer awareness month, a commemoration that receives far less attention than it should. Worldwide, cervical cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths among women.
Cervical cancer is largely caused by certain types of HPV. While most HPV infections are harmless, if left untreated, high-risk HPV can lead to cervical cancer.
The good news is that cervical cancer is highly preventable through regular cervical cancer screenings including Pap tests, consistent and correct condom use, and the HPV vaccine, which protects against the strains of HPV that cause 70% of cervical cancer cases. The CDC recommends the vaccine for people aged 11-12 as the vaccine works best when administered before people become sexually active, but even those who have had sex can benefit from the vaccine and it is available to anyone aged 9-26.
For women who do develop cervical cancer, if the cancer is detected early, treatment is nearly 100 percent effective.
The routine Pap tests used to detect cervical cancer can reduce cancer rates by 80 percent. Across the country, Planned Parenthood health centers provide more than 280,000 Pap tests a year. Here in Maine, our health centers in Topsham, Portland, Biddeford, and Sanford provide more than 1000 tests a year. The results are life-changing:
“Planned Parenthood probably saved my life.” -- Donna
“Screening is a wonderful thing.” -- Jean
“Planned Parenthood saved me from cancer.” -- Mikaela
“I owe my life to them.” -- Pamela
For many Planned Parenthood patients, we are their only access to care. For others, we are their preferred provider because we are accessible. We have evening hours and our health centers nearly always have same-day or next-day appointments available.
This was critical for Kelley after she moved to Maine and began experiencing symptoms that could be linked to cancer. She tried a private practice gynecologist and was told she would have to wait three to four months to be seen. A long-time supporter of Planned Parenthood, she called our Portland health center and was able to make an appointment that week.
Other patients choose Planned Parenthood because our health centers are a safe space and a judgement-free place where patients can receive high-quality, affordable care without shame or stigma.
After several unpleasant experiences following abnormal Pap tests, Jean believed judgement and lack of support were simply part of women’s health care. When she relocated to Portland, she scheduled an appointment at Planned Parenthood. Her Pap test results were again abnormal and she was relieved to find that at Planned Parenthood, there were “no scare tactics. No fear. No intentional misinformation. Just support, care, and help...Planned Parenthood made me less afraid to get checked.”
Shame, stigma, and judgement have no place in women’s health care, yet, this is what many women experience. Is it any surprise that in the past year the majority of people demanding a healthcare system that better meets our needs were women?
In record numbers, women fought to protect the Affordable Care Act, Planned Parenthood, and birth control coverage and with renewed interest in blocking patient access to Planned Parenthood, looming threats to Title X, the nation’s largest family planning grant program, Medicaid/Medicare, and rising maternal mortality, this activism will likely continue in 2018.
We’re at a turning point in the provision and delivery of health care.
We can regress to a health system that overlooks women’s needs, limits access to women’s reproductive health care, and shames them for their bodies and their healthcare decisions.
Or we can progress toward a culture that respects women, their health, and their bodies, and create a system that meets women’s needs with better outcomes, integrated women’s health providers, and improved access to the full range of reproductive health care, including cancer screenings.
This is not an easy undertaking, but Mainers have shown we are up for the challenge.