Nearing A Post-Pandemic World, Pre-Pandemic Health Risks Like Cervical Cancer Still Remain
Women should consider scheduling their well-woman exam as one of the most important “back-to-normal” activities they do.
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It’s understandable that despite our health being on our minds more than ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many women — while vigilant in protecting themselves from the coronavirus — have put off other aspects of their well-being.
People were asked to “shelter in place,” and they did. Analysis of U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey data, for example, shows that 43 million women said they’ve delayed care during the pandemic, 10.1 million more than men during the survey period, while a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation notes that 46% of women put off preventive care, and 32% skipped a medical test recommended by their doctor.
A report in Preventive Medicine found that delays in cervical cancer screenings related to the pandemic resulted in an 84% decline in follow-through, putting these women at greater risk. The report also found that among women of color, screenings rates were down 82% in Black women, 84% in Hispanic women and, astoundingly, 92% in Asian Pacific Islander women, potentially exacerbating disparities in cancer outcomes.
Now, with vaccination available across the country (and I urge you to get vaccinated if you haven’t already done so), I hope those 43 million women — and any woman who’s delayed visiting her doctors — will seek the care they need, whether that's for current medical conditions or for screenings for specific risks like cervical cancer. I’m optimistic this will happen though, especially with recent data from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute showing that while cervical cancer screening declined significantly in the Northeast during the pandemic, it has since “rebounded” to previous levels.
I hope we can build on that momentum across the country, with more women scheduling their well-woman exams, which they may have postponed. It’s called “well-woman” because it helps keep women well now and long into the future. The exam is an essential part of every woman’s health journey. The cervical cancer screenings conducted during them can be the difference between life and death. It’s that simple. When women get screened, cervical cancer rate declines.
In fact, cervical cancer rates have declined by more than 70% since the Pap test was introduced in the 1950s. And yet, every year more than 12,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer and more than 4,000 die of it, despite it being among the most preventable diseases and, when diagnosed early enough, among the most treatable.
Today, there are actually two tests commonly used to screen for cervical cancer: the Pap test and the human papillomavirus (HPV) tests. Co-testing, as it’s known, is incredibly effective, identifying 94.1% of cervical cancer cases and 99.7% of pre-cancer cases in women over 30, according to a recent study. The study also concludes that the use of HPV testing alone misses twice as much cervical cancer as co-testing. While screening guidelines differ depending on a woman's age, lifestyle and other factors, in addition to being screened if necessary, the well-woman exam is an annual opportunity to ask about which tests are best for you and the frequency with which you should have them.
We need women across the country to apply the same vigilance they did to protecting themselves from COVID-19 to protecting themselves against these diseases. Their vigilance may have saved their life then. It still can. The annual well-woman exam is the place to start.
Dr. Jacqueline Walters is a philanthropist, health expert, women’s advocate, TV personality and award-winning OB-GYN on a mission to impact the lives of millions. As a board-certified OB-GYN, Walters lives by the philosophy “work hard, play hard” and has now added author to her title with her sexual wellness book, 'The Queen V,' as well as podcast host with her podcast, 'Dr. Jackie’s Point of V.'