January has been observed as Cervical Health Awareness Month since 2010. With cervical cancer being the third most common cancer globally, it’s important to be mindful of the health risks and resources available to those in need. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 12,000 people are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year and roughly 4,000 die from it annually. As many as 93% of cervical cancers can be prevented by screening and vaccination.
The main cause of cervical cancer is human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus that can be passed between people through sex or any skin-to-skin genital contact with someone who has the virus. HPV is so common that most people will have it at some point in their lives without ever developing symptoms. Up to 90% of cases are cleared naturally by the immune system within two years. There is no way of knowing who will go on to develop health problems.
Some strains of HPV can cause warts around one’s genitals or in their throat, while others can cause normal cells in the body to turn abnormal — potentially developing into cancer over time. Smoking, having HIV, using birth control pills for an extended time (five or more years), or giving birth to three or more children all contribute to increased cervical cancer risk.
The most important thing women can do to prevent cervical cancer is to have regular screenings starting at age 21. Regular Pap tests performed by a doctor are the main defense against cervical cancer. There are vaccines for HPV that can greatly decrease the chances of contracting the potentially malignant virus available to pre-teens and young adults. Safe sex practices can also reduce (but not eliminate) the risk of infection for both cervical cancer and HPV.
Cervical health awareness is important for everyone with a cervix — not just cisgender women. Transgender men are at risk for cervical cancer if they still have a complete or partial cervix or if they have a history of cervical cancer, precancerous conditions, or HPV. Testosterone treatments common for trans men can cause changes in the cervix that may appear precancerous, making the results of Pap tests difficult to interpret. Trans women who have undergone “bottom” surgery can also be at risk for cervical cancer depending on the type of surgery and the kind of tissue used to construct their cervix.
Transgender people can experience discrimination and additional barriers to cancer screening that may cause many to postpone or avoid preventative care. Transgender individuals should speak with a knowledgeable and compassionate healthcare provider to see if a Pap test or comparable cancer screenings would be appropriate for them.
The costs associated with cervical cancer can be tremendous, especially for those without insurance. Cervical cancer treatment costs can range from less than $2,000 for a procedure to remove precancerous or cancerous cells, to tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for cases which require surgery and/or chemotherapy.
Fortunately, there are resources for those in need. The National Breast Cancer and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program is a national government initiative that provides free or low-cost screenings and access to treatment through Medicaid for women diagnosed with cancer through the program. Some states even offer free treatment for patients who qualify. Planned Parenthood provides many important services for low-income women and families, including cervical cancer screenings; Planned Parenthood performed 272,990 Pap tests in 2020.
Cancer screenings declined in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, including screenings for cervical cancer. Some screening programs were forced to cease operation during the various levels of lockdown, and healthcare providers all over the country are experiencing profound burnout. The American Cancer Society recommends Pap tests every three years, or every five years if an HPV test is used. If you are not presenting symptoms, previous results have been negative, and you take necessary precautions, cervical cancer screenings are not urgent. As your regular facility for healthcare returns to providing cancer screening, it’s important that it is done as safely as possible. Your healthcare provider can help you determine what screening schedule and which screening tests are best for you during this time.
Cervical health awareness is vital to public health. Women should be encouraged to get their well-woman visit with their doctor every year and be told of the resources available if they need help. Parents should know the HPV vaccine can greatly decrease their children’s risk of contracting cervical cancer.
NeedyMeds has information on free, low-cost, or sliding scale clinics, including over 450 Planned Parenthood locations throughout the United States. Search your ZIP code for locations in your area and look for Women’s Health under Services offered. The NeedyMeds Diagnosis Information Page for cervical cancer made in partnership with the Foundation for Women’s Cancer has information on commonly prescribed medications, links to programs that may provide prescriptions at low or no cost, and other resources available for those affected by cervical cancer. For further assistance navigating available resources, call our toll-free helpline at 1-800-503-6897.