3 ways anyone with a cervix can fight cervical cancer disparities

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

By Nicole Brudos Ferrara

Cervical cancer occurs in the cells of the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. While the rate of cervical cancer diagnoses in the U.S. has been declining for decades, a cervical cancer health disparities gap remains.

Hispanic women have the highest rate of cervical cancer diagnosis, followed by non-Hispanic Black women, according to the American Cancer Society. But non-Hispanic Black women are more likely to die from the disease than women of any other race or ethnicity — 80% more likely to die from cervical cancer than non-Hispanic white women.

Fortunately, people have the power to fight these disparities and reduce their risk of cervical cancer.

Here are three ways to get started:

1. Understand what's driving cancer disparities.

Cancer is diagnosed in every population group in the U.S. But because of economic, social and environmental disadvantages, some populations have greater difficulty accessing cancer care, which leads to poorer health outcomes. These population groups might be defined by race and ethnicity, disability, gender identity, geographic location, income, education, age or sexual orientation.

"Race is a social construct," says Olivia Cardenas-Trowers, M.D., a Mayo Clinic gynecologic specialist and urogynecologic surgeon. "There isn't a genetic difference that is causing Black people to die at higher rates of cervical cancer. Systemic racism affects Black people's access to health care through access to transportation, poor health literacy, and even trust in providers because of injustices that have happened in the past."

Cancer disparities reflect the interplay among many factors, including the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, and play; behavior; biology; and genetics — all of which can profoundly affect health, including cancer risk and outcomes, according to the National Cancer Institute.

"Because of systemic factors, some Black people may not undergo cancer screening that could catch an abnormality earlier," says Dr. Cardenas-Trowers. "Therefore, cervical cancer may be diagnosed at later stages. And then the likelihood of death is higher. They also may have problems getting access to treatment. They may not have the finances to undergo surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. All of these issues factor into a higher likelihood of death from cervical cancer for Black people."

These same factors contribute to higher death rates for Black people in many other cancer types, as well.

2. Establish a relationship with a primary care provider.

Due to some of the same factors that drive cancer disparities, many people in the U.S. don't have a health care provider they see regularly. But having a primary care provider can help you maintain good health, prevent disease, and help you get treatment if you become ill.

"Establishing care with a primary care provider is very important because if you're able to talk with somebody you trust, you feel more comfortable sharing things that can help prevent you from getting certain conditions, and they can help you navigate the system more easily," says Dr. Cardenas-Trowers.

A good primary care provider will prompt you to get routine cancer screenings and vaccines, including those used to screen for and prevent cervical cancer. Your provider also will help you understand screening results and get treatment that might be needed. If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, a primary care provider can support you throughout your treatment. "A provider you trust can help you get the best treatment based on your preferences, listen to your concerns and address them, and help you navigate the health care system efficiently, so you get the best care," says Dr. Cardenas-Trowers.

3. Take action to reduce your risk of cervical cancer.

You have the power to reduce your risk of being diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Here's how:

Talk to your health care provider about the HPV vaccine.

Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that can be prevented with a vaccine. "Everyone should know that HPV, human papillomavirus, is the leading cause of cervical cancer," says Dr. Cardenas-Trowers.

"There is a vaccine that can be given as early as 9 years old, up to 45 years old. Even if you've had HPV before, you can still undergo this vaccine if you're between those ages."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that the HPV vaccine be given between ages 11 and 12. It can be given as early as age 9. It's ideal for everyone to receive the vaccine before they have sexual contact and are exposed to HPV. If you're 27 to 45, ask your health care provider whether the HPV vaccine is recommended for you.

Get routine Pap tests.

Pap tests, or Pap smears, can detect precancerous conditions of the cervix, so they can be monitored or treated to prevent cervical cancer. Health care providers generally recommend repeating Pap testing every three to five years from ages 21 to 65.

Practice safe sex.

The greater your number of sexual partners, the greater your chance of acquiring HPV. Other sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV/AIDS, also increase your risk of HPV. That's why it's important to practice safe sex.

Don't smoke.

Smoking is associated with squamous cell cervical cancer. If you don't smoke, don't start. If you do, talk to your health care provider about strategies to help you quit.

Medical researchers at Mayo Clinic and around the world are studying how to help everyone achieve the highest possible level of well-being and health, and ultimately eliminate health and cancer care disparities. You can help by learning what's driving cervical cancer and other health disparities, and taking action to make sure you and your family establish routine health care and trust with a primary care provider who can help you navigate the health care system.

Learn more

Watch Dr. Cardenas-Trowers discuss cervical cancer and the care disparities experienced by Black women in this "Mayo Clinic Q&A" podcast video:

Learn more about cervical cancer and find a Mayo Clinic cervical cancer clinical trial.

Also read this article: "HPV vaccine: Who needs it, how it works." And join the Gynecologic Cancers Group on Mayo Clinic Connect.