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What Black Women Need To Know About Cervical Cancer

Author: Meredith Hurston, MHA, MT(ASCP)cmp

Board of Directors, Member, Advocating For My Uterus


January is designated as Cervical Cancer Awareness Month in the United States. We see more than 14,000 new cases of cervical cancer in the U.S. each year. Black women are disproportionately affected by this disease and are twice as likely to die from it than white women. Advocating For My Uterus would like to do our part in offering some education on this serious health issue.


According to cancer.gov, virtually all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV (human papillomavirus). HPV is easily transmitted between sexual partners through intimate skin-to-skin contact. Condoms and dental dams are helpful but do not eliminate the risk of transmission.


The virus can lead to changes in the cells of the cervix, which can then develop into cancer if left untreated. There are several risk factors for cervical cancer, including smoking, having a weakened immune system, and having multiple sexual partners. However, one of the most effective ways to prevent cervical cancer is through regular screenings, such as the Pap test and HPV test, both of which can detect abnormal cells in the cervix before they turn into cancer.


What are the Pap and HPV tests?

The HPV and Pap tests are commonly done together during the recommended annual women’s wellness exam at your gynecologist's office. Many of us have sat in the office on the high exam table in that thin gown with nothing on but our socks underneath it 🥴. We are asked to put our feet in the stirrups and scoot our bottom to the end of the table. That’s when they do the pelvic exam. During this exam is when the Dr., Nurse Practitioner, or Physician Assistant will collect a sample for the Pap and HPV tests. The specimen is collected by using a small brush that looks a bit like a mascara spoolie to gently brush the inside of your cervix. The brush is then inserted into a small container filled with liquid, then sent off to the lab for testing. Laying on the exam table in stirrups isn’t the most comfortable or dignified feeling, but the procedure tends to not be very painful. Most women report feeling some pressure, but little to no pain. HPV and Pap test results are typically returned to your Dr. within about a week. Be sure to ask your Dr. when they think results may be available.


Tip: if your doctor and preferred lab have an electronic patient portal like Epic MyChart, be sure to sign up for it. You can see the results as soon as they are released by the lab.


What does it mean when results are abnormal?

The HPV test results may show as not detected or detected. Not detected is a normal test result. When HPV is detected, that is considered an abnormal result and your doctor may want to follow up with some additional testing.


Pap test results are a little more complex. The result may show as normal, unclear, abnormal, or unsatisfactory. Normal test results indicate that no unusual cells were observed in that sample for that particular screening. An unclear result indicates there may be some changes in the cervical cells, but it is not clear if it is a significant finding. Abnormal results will typically come with some additional information or recommend further testing. An unsatisfactory test result indicates the specimen was not suitable for testing, no determination can be made, and the test should be repeated. In the case of unclear, abnormal, and unsatisfactory results, your doctor may recommend additional testing. It’s important to follow their recommendations. Be sure to ask questions about anything you don’t understand.


Black women are more at risk

Unfortunately, Black women are not as likely to receive regular screenings for cervical cancer as other races. This can be due to a variety of factors, including lack of access to affordable healthcare, lack of education about the importance of screenings, and mistrust of the medical system. This is concerning because Black women are more likely to develop cervical cancer than women of other races and ethnicities. When left undiagnosed or untreated there can be serious complications and consequences, including diminished quality of life and ultimately, death.


Black women are more than twice as likely to die from cervical cancer as our white counterparts. We must raise awareness about the disease and the steps that can be taken to reduce the transmission of HPV. It is equally as important to raise awareness about early detection and ways to improve health outcomes for Black women.


Other ways to reduce risk of cervical cancer

Besides testing for HPV and cervical cancer during routine women's wellness exams, what else can be done? There is a vaccine available to protect against some high-risk strains of HPV. It’s called Gardasil 9. It’s FDA approved and manufactured by Merck Pharmaceuticals. As of this writing (1/12/23), the CDC recommends that children between the ages of 11- to 12-year-olds receive two doses of HPV vaccine 6 to 12 months apart. The guidelines further state that vaccination can be effective for adolescents and young adults anytime between the ages of 11- 26. We recommend consulting your doctor or your child’s pediatrician for what is best for your individual circumstances.


We Need YOUR help!

Help us spread the word about cervical cancer this month by sharing this article with the women in your family and friends circle. By raising awareness, we hope more women will understand the importance of annual screening and ultimately lower the death rate of cervical cancer in Black women. The other less talked about side effect of HPV and cervical cancer is the reduced quality of life due to cancer treatments and surgery. We can reduce the alarming rate of cervical cancer deaths in Black women through prevention strategies and early detection.


About the Author

Meredith is a board certified Clinical Laboratory Scientist based in Baltimore, MD. She is a passionate, no-nonsense advocate for patients and their safety. She is dedicated to offering education to help close the gap in healthcare disparities. In addition to a career in healthcare, she also hosts a community for Black women who are childless not by choice. If you are interested in learning more about this safe space, visit: https://blackandchildless.com/resources/


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