Cervical Cancer: It's not Black and White

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A targeted national program including widespread media coverage has increased awareness of breast cancer in the black community, but another group of cancers that strike thousands of African–American women each year has received little attention. Cervical cancer accounts for approximately 13,000 of all new cancer cases among women each year. Some 4,400 women will die each year due to cervical cancer. While the incidence of cervical cancer has steadily decreased over the last three decades among women of all racial and ethnic groups, some differences in survival still exist between African–American women and their white counterparts.

Scientific advances have broadened our understanding of the biology of cervical cancer. It is now well established that a virus–human papilloma virus, or HPV–is the agent responsible for external genital warts, cervical pre–cancers, and cervical cancers. This virus is transmitted during sexual contact. Once infected, women may never develop symptoms of infection. However, some will develop external genital warts or cervical dysplasia–a form of pre–cancer. There are a variety of ways to treat warts and dysplasia. If untreated, rarely does dysplasia progress to cancer. Safe sexual contact is key in preventing the transmission of the virus responsible for dysplasia.

Evidence of the viral infection of cervical dysplasia can be detected on a Pap smear. Since the Pap smear was introduced in 1945, incidence and death rates of cervical cancer in the United States have steadily declined. Older studies have shown that African–American women still are more likely to develop cervical cancer and to die of their disease than white women. However, a study published in the journal Cancer reported that when healthcare access is equal, there are no differences in death rates among African–American and white women with cervical cancer.

There is now a vaccine to prevent the HPV virus that can lead to cervical cancer. Additionally, there are things that African–American women can do to protect themselves from developing cervical cancer:

  • Women should practice safe sex.
  • Cigarette smoking is known to be associated with cervical dysplasia and with cervical cancer–therefore, women should stop smoking.
  • Women should get a yearly gynecological exam and Pap smear.

Cervical cancer should not be a death sentence to women if detected early. External genital warts and cervical dysplasia are easy to detect and treat when women seek regularly scheduled check–ups and the cancer is detected early.

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