Why Black women need to be screened for cervical cancer

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Editor’s note: January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. Consider sharing this 
article to educate others about the importance of cervical cancer screening.

By Deb Balzer

While all women can develop cervical cancer, non-Hispanic Black women are more likely to be diagnosed and die of cervical cancer, compared to white women in the U.S.

This disparity is not due to genetic differences among white, Black or Hispanic women, but rather related to systemic racism, access to health care, and socioeconomic factors, says Olivia Cardenas-Trowers, M.D., a Mayo Clinic urogynecologist. That is why she encourages women to learn more about this often-avoidable cancer and get screened, usually starting at 21 for average-risk women.

Watch this "Mayo Clinic Minute" video to hear Dr. Cardenas-Trowers discuss the importance of cervical cancer screening:

For everyone's safety, Mayo Clinic has strict masking policies in place. Anyone shown without a mask was recorded prior to COVID-19 or recorded in an area not designated for patient care, where social distancing and other safety protocols were followed.

Screening for cervical cancer often starts with a Pap smear.

"Cervical cancer is diagnosed with tissue sampling, so like with a biopsy, but abnormal cells can be picked up with a screening exam like a Pap smear, which can lead to being able to diagnose cervical cancer," says Dr. Cardenas-Trowers.

Early stage cervical cancer may produce no distinct symptoms, making these regular screenings lifesaving.

"It's really in later-stage cervical cancer, where you can see things like abnormal vaginal bleeding and pain, in general, or with intercourse," says Dr. Cardenas-Trowers.

The biggest risk factor for developing cervical cancer — HPV infection — can be prevented with a vaccine.

"There is a vaccine out there that can be given as early as 9 years old and up to 45 years old. It is very important to know it's not only for women, but actually also for men," says Dr. Cardenas-Trowers.

Access to health care and establishing trust is essential to help reduce the cervical cancer mortality rate for Black women, says Dr. Cardenas-Trowers. Her advice for all women is to establish care with a primary care provider, undergo the recommended screening, and get the HPV vaccine for yourself if you're eligible and for your children.

Learn more

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

Join the Gynecological Cancers Support Group on Mayo Clinic Connect.

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A version of this article was originally published on the Mayo Clinic News Network.