Embrace the Pap Test; Cervical Cancer Is No Game
Latinas and low-income women suffer from it at a higher rate.
By Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou, EGP Staff Writer
Asking your boss for time off work, waiting for the nurse to call your name, getting poked in funny places by a doctor you barely know – all this to find out how much you have to pay. Going to the doctor’s office is no relaxing walk in the park.
But neither is cervical cancer. So, before waving off the hassle of getting tested or vaccinated, think for a moment about what it means to put off seeing a doctor.
Yes, ladies, cervical cancer is a cancer of the “you know what,” down there. And it is life-threatening. Last year in the United States more than 4,000 out of 12,000 women with cervical cancer died from it.
This is also a sexually transmitted cancer, which might make you turn red to think about it, but it is caused by a virus that half the population carries at one time or another. That makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
There is no shame in it, whether you are 15-years old or 55-years old.
So what does all this depressing news have to do with you? You may think you are one of those people who will turn out fine or that you are not sexually promiscuous, or you are thinking you’ll wait until you have money to pay for those big health bills.
But early stages of cervical cancer have no symptoms. If you have not had a pap test in years or ever, and you don’t plan on taking one anytime soon, then the only surefire way to find out might be when your doctor recommends chemotherapy or surgery. What will your life and health bills look like then?
As a radiation oncologist at White Memorial Hospital, Dr. Ana Grace only sees patients after they have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, and she says some women, “unfortunately, come into the emergency room bleeding” before finding out.
There is quite a bit of positive news, though, including the fact that getting tested can be relatively simple and low-cost, if not free.
According to Dr. Grace, if you catch cervical cancer early, when it is still “pre-invasive,” it is “completely curable” and takes no more trouble than a few visits to the doctor’s office.
Doctors recommend getting a pap test every two or three years to detect the early signs of cervical cancer, or getting vaccinated if you are between the ages of 9 and 26 to prevent it completely.
There are also many places to get a pap test for free or at a lowered cost, usually around $15 if it isn’t free, at a clinic or a health fair, said Dr. Grace. Vaccines are also provided for free to those up to the age of 18.
If the doctor finds those early signs of cancer, you may still have to go through some uncomfortable procedures to remove the cancerous cells by freezing them, Dr. Grace said, but you are ready to go back to living your life the same day.
As a cervical cancer survivor, 55-year old Maria Magdalena is considered lucky, but before becoming a “survivor” she went through the very unpleasant experience of having all of her reproductive organs removed as a result of her cancer.
The first alarming signs of her cancer came when she had non-stop bleeding in her cervix area for 29 days. She went to the doctor to find out what was wrong, but was shuffled around from doctor to doctor.
Magdalena did not actually find out she was suffering from cancer until a year and a half later, when she took a pap test after she missed taking them for over a year.
“When they told me ‘you have cancerous cells,’ I felt the earth shake, not because I was scared, but because so many things go through your head, and all the plans I had in three days, I could no longer do,” she said. “You feel like the rug has been pulled out from under you. It feels horrible.”
When Magdalena thinks about telling others her story, she says “nobody can experience something through someone else’s head, until it happens to you.”
She says “we need to have an open mind to prevention,” including with vaccines, which when given to children could carry a stigma.
“I have heard that to allow this vaccine to be administered is like opening the door for young women to have sex before it’s time – as we say in our culture. But I think that it comes down to one’s home, the roots that we have instilled in our children,” she said.
Just as important as giving children a “good moral” upbringing is giving them “health advice,” Magdalena says.
Medical professionals concerned that this stigma is keeping women and girls from getting tested or vaccinated are also saying there should be no shame attached to cervical cancer. About fifty percent of people, including men, carry the human papillomavirus, HPV, that causes it, says Dr. Grace.
The more modest or the more cash-strapped you are, the more doctors are concerned. In fact, Los Angeles County is looking at cervical cancer as a serious health problem for those who don’t get tested or vaccinated.
Many of them are immigrant or low-income women, according to numbers collected by the County. “Hispanic women are the ones being diagnosed at a later stage and often times they’re the ones that have not gotten a pap smear within the past three years,” said Dr. Diana Ramos of the Los Angeles County Health Department.
Cervical cancer seems to affect Latinas the most in Los Angeles County, with 14.3 out of every 100,000 women suffering from it. Asian and Pacific Islander women come in second, with 9.3 per 100,000 women.
But level of income has an even bigger correlation with the number of people suffering from cervical cancer – 20 out of 100,000 at the lowest income level get cervical cancer.
Whether there is a social stigma or a lack of insurance or money to pay for health bills, all of this pales in comparison to finding out too late that you have cancer, said Dr. Grace.
“As a society we need to be embracing pap tests and preventative measures to keep our mothers and daughters alive,” she said.
Dr. Grace and Dr. Ramos provided some numbers to call if you want to find out about local places to get tested or vaccinated, even if you don’t have insurance or you don’t think your insurance will cover the test.
Dr. Grace recommended the state’s cancer health hotline Every Woman Counts at 1-800-511-2300 to find out places to get tested. Dr. Ramos recommended calling the Los Angeles County Health Department at 1-800-793-8090 to find out about where to get a free pap test.
Gloria Angelina Castillo contributed to this story.Print This Post
January 27, 2011 Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.