Patricia Gregory of Cary was only 24 years old when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Now a mother of an 11-year-old daughter, she considers herself blessed to have a child, as cervical cancer can make women unable to bear children.
Marie Miranda, who was diagnosed at age 28, underwent a total hysterectomy. “I was heartbroken … It was very hard for many years,” said the Raleigh resident, now 41, who adopted two girls last year.
Wanting to spare other women the uncertainty they faced, Gregory and Miranda have joined a statewide effort to raise awareness about vaccination and early screening to prevent this form of cancer.
The initiative, Cervical Cancer-Free North Carolina, includes a coalition of health-care providers, organizations, educators and others who are spreading the message that cervical cancer can be eliminated – especially in January, which is designated Cervical Health Awareness Month.
Here are the statistics:
• Each year, 12,200 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer nationally. Of those, nearly 4,200 die from this fully preventable and treatable cancer.
• In 2011, almost 400 North Carolina women will get cervical cancer, and more than 100 will die.
• Only one in three adolescent girls in North Carolina has the recommended three doses of the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine, which guards against the two types of the virus that cause more than 70 percent of cervical cancers.
• About half of women who die from cervical cancer did not receive regular Pap tests, which detect the abnormal cells that can lead to cervical cancer. About a quarter of women in North Carolina have not been screened in the past three years, the maximum interval recommended.
• African-American women and Latinas are disproportionately affected by cervical cancer and the least likely to be screened.
“In a wealthy nation like the United States, it is unforgivable to have women dying from cervical cancer, a fully preventable disease,” said Noel Brewer, Ph.D., the initiative’s director and associate professor at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and a member of the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. “We can do better for our daughters, mothers, sisters and friends. We have to. Together, we can eliminate cervical cancer in North Carolina.”
The latest recommendations from health experts are that parents should get the HPV vaccine early for your daughters, and women should begin regular screening with a Pap test at age 21. The three-dose HPV vaccine series is recommended for routine administration to girls 11- or 12-years-old, with catch-up provision to females up to age 26. Even women who have been vaccinated still need regular screening though.
Before the introduction of Pap smear screening, uterine cancer – which includes cervical cancer – was the most common cause of cancer deaths in women, said Amy C. Denham, M.D., medical director of the cancer prevention and control branch at the N.C. Division of Public Health and a practicing physician in the School of Medicine’s family medicine department.
“The good news is that cervical cancer is now a relatively uncommon cause of death,” Denham said. “But death rates are still too high. The cornerstones of our cervical cancer prevention efforts should be Pap smear screening at least every three years for women aged 21 and older and HPV vaccination for girls at age 11 or 12.”
Survivors Gregory and Miranda have turned their experiences with cervical cancer into roles as passionate advocates. Gregory serves as president of the Raleigh chapter of the National Cervical Cancer Coalition; Miranda is a regular volunteer for the American Cancer Society.
“We as women are the caretakers of others,” said Gregory. “We have to take care of ourselves too. It’s such a simple thing. We just have to get tested. I’d like to think that in my daughter’s lifetime cervical cancer will be eradicated.”
HPV vaccine is available at many doctor’s offices and health departments across the state. For more information about access and eligibility for low-cost screening services, contact the N.C. Breast and Cervical Cancer Control Program at (919) 707-5300, or the NC CARE LINE tollfree at 1-(800) 662-7030 (English/Spanish).