January is cervical health care month and I am overdue for a pap smear.
I work in reproductive health; I teach the importance of pap smears and even have access to them for free as I work at Planned Parenthood and yet… I am overdue and I’m not alone. Like going to the dentist, many people dread the idea of getting a pap smear but this simple test saves lives.
Pap smears do not test for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). It is a screening for cervical cancer. With regular pap smears, we can now identify abnormal cells in the beginning stages and treat them before they can become cancerous. Essentially with early detection, we can prevent cervical cancer.
As a Black woman, I am in a higher risk group for cervical cancer. There are various reasons for this. Unlike me, many Black women do not have such easy access to reproductive health care. In Black communities, health care providers can be scarce—especially OBGYNs. Because of this lack of access, Black women are often diagnosed at later stages or not at all. Black women also often prioritize their family’s health over their own. Because of this, they will often not seek out preventative care. The history of the Black community and health systems has also led to a distrust that is passed down through generations. Not too long ago, Black people were subject to medical experiments—often times without their knowledge or against their will. It’s no surprise many people simply avoid medical providers.
Access, concepts of self-care, and historical trauma are not easy to overcome. As a community, we need to acknowledge these factors are still affecting our long term health. According to the American Cancer Society, Black women in the US are dying from cervical cancer at a rate 77% higher than previously thought. This is unacceptable for something that is easily caught early with a simple test.
Cervical cancer is caused when the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infects the cervix during sexual activity. There are various types of HPV, most of them will never harm the body or cause any symptoms, while low risk types can possibly lead to genital warts, and high risk types could lead to cancer. The cervix is a part of the body at the very back of the vaginal canal and has a small opening that leads to the uterus. During a pap smear, a provider inserts a speculum into the vagina and brushes the cervix lightly to gather skin cells. These cells are sent to a lab where they are tested for abnormalities. Patients 30 and older, will also receive an additional test for high risk HPV. Most people will have an abnormal pap at some point in their lives, this is not necessarily associated with cancer.
Pap smears are not just for women. If you have a cervix, you need a pap smear. Your medical provider can tell you when your next pap smear is due based on age and medical history.
Along with getting regular pap smears, get vaccinated. HPV vaccines like Gardasil can protect against high and low risk HPV. All people should get the vaccine. HPV does not only cause cervical cancer, but also cancer in the vulva, vagina, penis, rectum, and throat. Ideally, the vaccine should be administered before someone becomes sexually active but the FDA has approved the vaccine for as late as 45.
According to the CDC, almost all sexually active people will be exposed to HPV at some point in their lives. Most people will never know. There is no common test for HPV and most strains will never cause symptoms. Because HPV takes years to cause abnormal cells, most people do not know when they were exposed.
This January, I will schedule my pap. I hope you will too. Cervical cancer can be prevented. If you are due for your pap smear, Planned Parenthood has 10 health centers in the Chicagoland area. You can make an appointment online at www.ppil.org or call 1800-230-7526 to find a health center near you.
Let us know if you are worried about cost or travel, we can help.
Deonn Strathman is the Director of Community Engagement and Adolescent Health Initiatives at Planned Parenthood of Illinois.