No woman need die from cervical cancer

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By Jonna Spelbring Priester

As the headline for this column indicates, I am passionate about cervical cancer. I firmly believe that no woman should die from this disease, particularly in the United States.

And it’s a cause I am so fervently passionate about, that I’ll tell the story and repeat it over and over again, if it will save even one life. 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 had been diagnosed with stage four 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 utilized her health insurance to get checked out.

The diagnosis was grim — stage four cervical cancer. She refused to discuss her prognosis, but it was clear that she had been told she didn’t have much time left. Within a year, she was dead.

It was during the course of the interview that I discovered she hadn’t had an annual gynecological exam since she’d been married 30 years ago. I asked her if, based on her experience, she would recommend women get that exam.

She said, inexplicably, no. She didn’t think anyone should be ruled by fear.

I was dumbstruck, and spent the drive home absolutely stunned.

I was surprised because there was no reason this woman should be staring down death. Not when a simple, less than 10-minute exam could have saved her life. A few moments of discomfort, and the knowledge that things are okay, isn’t being ruled by fear.

That simple exam includes the Papanicolaou test — named for Greek doctor Georgios Papanicolaou who developed the test in the 1920s — or pap smear. Sure, it’s an uncomfortable procedure, but it doesn’t last long. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather endure a few moments of discomfort than endure dying of a cancer that is almost entirely treatable and preventable.

Doubt that?

According to Wikipedia, cervical cancer was a leading cause of death among women before the pap smear was developed. Since then, deaths from cervical cancer have been reduced by, according to Wiki, as much as 99 percent.

In the U.S., more than half of all invasive instances of cervical cancer occur in women who have never had a pap smear, and an additional 10-20 percent of cancers occur in women who have not had one in the preceding five years.

Cervical cancer typically is not a fast moving disease. Even a pap smear once every three to five years can save a woman’s life. When caught early, the chance of curing cervical cancer is very high, and the pap smear itself can detect the cells that could become cancer. Treatment in most cases can prevent cervical cancer from developing.

The American College for Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends women get pap smears annually, beginning three years after first sexual intercourse or 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 policies cover the pap smear as preventative care. And some agencies charge patients on a sliding scale based on income, to conduct the simple, life-saving procedure.

What still floors me today is that a woman who was employed full time, and had benefits, would opt not to get this annual test, because she would rather not live in fear. And she died because of it.

It was senseless. Please, don’t let it happen to you.

Jonna can be reached at editor@hclocal.com