(WOMENSENEWS)–In New York City, one Barnard College student has never missed an annual visit to her gynecologist. The 21-year-old gets regular cervical cancer screenings and has been vaccinated against the human papillomavirus.
She believes all women her age should do the same.
"I really hope that young women are going to the gynecologist," she said. "At the very least, you need an annual exam."
But a significant number of young women still do not understand the importance of cervical cancer screening, according to a national survey released in mid-January by the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation, a national organization of gynecologic oncologists based in Chicago. In fact, young women feel they know more about the hottest new music than they do about reproductive health. Past studies have shown similar results.
Several health organizations have launched Web campaigns to increase cervical cancer awareness in the month of January, designated by Congress as Cervical Health Awareness Month.
Better education is necessary, as it will help reduce the number of preventable deaths from the disease, women’s health experts agree.
Cervical cancer is a slow-growing cancer most often caused by human papillomavirus, or HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. More than 11,000 American women were diagnosed with cervical cancer last year. The diagnosis rate is low among young women age 19 to 25–about 1.6 per 100,000 U.S. females, according to the National Cancer Institute–but concern remains high. More than 4,000 women died last year of the disease.
Simple Cancer-Prevention Test
Most, if not all, of these cervical cancer deaths could have been prevented with a simple screening test that detects abnormal cervical cells before they turn into cancer. Since its introduction in the 1940s, the Pap test has reduced the incidence of the disease by more than 70 percent. Still, cervical cancer remains the second most common cause of cancer death in American women ages 20 to 40.
Young women seem to be largely misinformed about cervical cancer, according to the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation survey of 1,006 females between the ages of 19 and 25. Some 85 percent of survey respondents said they did not believe they are currently at risk for cervical cancer. Two-thirds of the women did not think they were at risk for the HPV infection, even though the infection is common in this age group.
Nearly a quarter of the surveyed women said the Pap test had never been explained to them. About 1 in 5 thought the test was designed to detect ovarian cancer.
"The sheer magnitude of the lack of knowledge was surprising," said Linda Miller, the foundation’s cervical cancer campaign specialist. "Lately there has been a lot of discussion about HPV among young women in this age group. We were amazed by the inadequate amount of information out there."
It’s vital that young women are educated on cervical health and disease prevention, says Dr. Sharyn Lewin, a gynecologic oncologist at Columbia University Medical Center.
"Cervical cancer is both preventable and treatable," said Lewin. "We know that at least 60 to 80 percent of women in this age group are infected with HPV. Young women need to be aware of whether or not they are infected."
The consequences of not undergoing regular checkups can be serious. Of the women diagnosed with cervical cancer, 50 to 60 percent of them never had a Pap test, according to the Atlanta-based American Cancer Society. About 10 percent had not had a Pap test within the past five years.
Various Efforts to Educate
The Gynecologic Cancer Foundation is one of several women’s health organizations working to educate the general public about the disease. Its national campaign, funded by HPV vaccine manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline, is using spokeswoman and actress Mandy Moore to inspire young women to talk to their doctors about cervical health.
The Pearl of Wisdom Campaign to Prevent Cervical Cancer, led by the Upper Marlboro, Md.-based nonprofit Tamika and Friends, in collaboration with 21 national partners, aims to recruit more than 4,000 women to take the ‘Pearl Pledge.’ Participation requires that each woman schedule her annual exam, ask five friends to sign up and wear a Pearl of Wisdom pin to support cervical cancer prevention.
The National Cervical Cancer Coalition organizes the nation’s annual Free Pap Test Day, held on the second Friday of January. Women who have not had a Pap test within the past three years can call participating gynecologists to schedule a free appointment. The coalition also provides Web information on how you can raise awareness about HPV and cervical cancer.
These campaigns all have one common message: no one should die from cervical cancer. Young girls should get the HPV vaccine early, ideally at around 11 or 12 years old, before they become sexually active. Young healthy women should talk to their doctors about the newly revised cervical cancer screening guidelines. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists now recommends women begin getting Pap tests at age 21, with repeat screenings every one to two years until the age of 30. Older women may be screened every three years.
Most importantly, young women should visit their gynecologist every year, regardless of whether they are being screened for cervical cancer.
"A lot of girls go to their gynecologist as their primary doctor for sexual health, STDs, family planning, even general concerns," said Debbie Saslow, director of breast and gynecologic cancers for the American Cancer Society. "Even if it is too soon to get a Pap test, girls need to go see a gynecologist."
Lauren Browne is a freelance medical journalist based in New York City. She is currently completing both a journalism degree at Columbia University and a medical degree at Duke University.
For more information:
National Cervical Cancer Coalition:
The Gynecologic Cancer Foundation:
National Cervical Cancer Public Education Campaign:
Pearl of Wisdom Campaign: