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I am passionate about preventing cervical cancer. I firmly believe no woman should die from this disease, particularly in the United States.
If I have to, if it helps save even one life, I’ll tell the following story over and over again. Parts of what I’m about to say are mildly graphic; but, if we don’t talk about these things, they will continue to happen.
Several years ago, I interviewed a McLean County woman who was diagnosed with Stage 4 cervical cancer. I don’t remember her name, but I remember her story very clearly.
She went the better part of three decades without getting an annual gynecological exam. She had just one sexual partner — her husband — and gave birth to three children.
A few months before I met her, this woman began to experience unusually heavy menstrual cycles. She was bleeding, almost hemorrhaging for several weeks. She knew something wasn’t right, and finally used her health insurance to get checked out.
The diagnosis, obviously, was grim. In our interview, she refused to discuss her prognosis; but, clearly, she had been told she didn’t have much time.
Within a year, she was dead.
During the interview, after she revealed that she hadn’t seen a gynecologist in the 30 years since she’d been married, I asked her if, based on her experience, she would recommend women get that exam.
No, she said. She didn’t think anyone should be ruled by fear.
I was dumbstruck. There was no reason why this woman should be staring down death.Not when a simple exam, which takes less than 10-minutes, could have saved her life.
I believe the opposite.
That simple exam includes the Papanicolaou test, or Pap smear — named for a Greek doctor, Georgios Papanicolaou, who developed the test in the 1920s – is an uncomfortable procedure. But, it doesn’t last long, and I’d rather endure a few moments of discomfort than endure a painful death from a cancer that is almost entirely treatable and preventable.
The American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org) reports cervical cancer was one of the most common causes of cancer deaths for American women. But, between 1955-92, the death rate from the cancer declined 74 percent – and that’s because of the Pap test. This procedure can find changes in the cervix before cancer develops and can detect the cancer in its earliest and most curable stage. The ACS says the death rate from this cancer declines by 4 percent every year.
ACS states that the five-year relative survival rate, when detected early, is nearly 92 percent. Even a pap smear once every three to five years can save a woman’s life. And, the test also can detect “pre-cancerous” cells – cells that could become cancer later on. Treatment at this stage often can prevent the disease from developing.
The American College for Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends women get pap smears annually, beginning three years after first sexual intercourse or at age 21, whichever comes first, and then yearly until age 30. After age 30, if a woman has had three normal annual pap results, she can do a pap smear every two to three years.
Most health insurance plans cover the Pap smear as preventative care. If you don’t have insurance, some agencies charge patients on a sliding scale based on income. So, there’s really no excuse.
What still floors me today is that this one woman, who had a full-time job with health-care benefits, refused to get this simple test because she would rather not live in fear.
And she died because of it. Please. Don’t let it happen to you.
Jonna Spelbring Priester is editor and general manager of the Henry County Local in Eminence, Ky. January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month.