The death rate for cervical cancer in the United States is considerably higher than previously estimated, and the rate at which Black women are dying from the condition as compared with white women is much higher than health officials previously thought, according to a new study published in the journal Cancer.
Health experts say the findings are particularly troubling, since cervical cancer is largely preventable, The New York Times reports.
Cervical cancer occurs when a malignant tumor begins growing on the cervix, the lowest part of a woman’s uterus. The illness is largely caused by untreated infections of the human papillomavirus (HPV), one of the most common types of sexually transmitted infections, and often takes many years, even decades, to develop. (A routine Pap smear screens for cervical cancer, but an estimated 4,000 American women nonetheless die from the illness every year.)
For this study, researchers reviewed health information on cervical cancers diagnosed in the United States between 2000 and 2012. Scientists excluded women who underwent hysterectomies (a surgery that removes the uterus and almost always the cervix) from that larger population. The approach allowed researchers to generate a more targeted picture of cervical cancer survival rates, since up to 20 percent of American women opt for a hysterectomy, which effectively nixes the risk for cervical cancer.
Findings showed that the mortality rate of Black women diagnosed with cervical cancer was 10.1 per 100,000 in the population compared with 4.7 per 100,000 for white women. Previously, studies reported figures of 5.7 and 3.2, respectively, for the two population groups, which vastly underestimated their mortality rates and the racial disparities pertaining to cervical cancer.
“This shows that our disparities are even worse than we feared,” said Kathleen M. Schmeler, MD, an associate professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “We have screenings that are great, but many women in America are not getting them. And now I have even more concerns going forward with the [expected] repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which covers screening, and the closing of family planning clinics, which do much of that screening.”
Experts suggested that the disparity could reflect unequal access to screening, health insurance and early-warning tests for cervical cancer. In addition, recent findings have shown that many Black and poor patients diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer did not receive treatment considered to be the standard of care.
But there is good news. Scientists believe that rates for the disease should decrease as more women get vaccinated for HPV. Click here to learn more about this vaccine.