Screening Is Key to Fighting Cervical Cancer


In 2010, comedian Kathy Griffin underwent a very public pap smear to raise awareness about women's health.
In 2010, comedian Kathy Griffin underwent a very public pap smear to raise awareness about women's health.
Angela Weiss/Getty Images

A few years ago, I got a nerve-racking call from my nurse. She informed me that my pap smear results were abnormal.

I had a touch of what's called cervical dysplasia, or abnormal growth of cervical cells. I would need to head back into the office for a colposcopy (during which a doctor gets really up close and personal with one's cervix).

The exam confirmed I had some nasty, precancerous cells hanging out on my cervix. Not exactly the best news in the world. I was surprised; after all, I'd been religious about getting annual pap smears and pelvic exams, and I'd been first in line to get the HPV vaccine as soon as it was available.

But I'm lucky. Being vigilant about my health meant I was able to avoid an even nastier health scare - one for which too many women are still at risk.

A report out last week from the CDC estimates that 8 million American women have not been screened for cervical cancer as part of a routine pelvic exam.

The authors looked at data from 2007 to 2012 to determine how many women are getting screened, assess the current rates of cervical cancer and learn how many women are still dying from this preventable disease each year.

They found that death rates have remained relatively stable - and that incidence rates of cervical cancer have actually declined 1.9 percent - but large portions of the population are still at risk because they're not catching the signs early enough.

Least likely to have been screened during that five-year period? Women without health insurance and a primary care physician. In general, for women ages 21 to 65, 1 in 10 had not been screened. But when health insurance and a regular doctor were subtracted from the equation, that number jumped to 1 in 4.

In terms of geography, the South is home to the highest number of women who hadn't been screened (12.3 percent). This has tragic consequences: The region is also hit with the highest incidence of cervical cancer (8.5 per 100,000 women) and the highest death rate in the country (2.7 per 100,000 women).

Thanks to the great gynecologist I've now been seeing for 12 years, I was able to stop the precancerous cells in their tracks. My doctor gave me the cervical equivalent of a chemical facial peel, and that was that. I went back for regular check-ups, and the unwelcome cells were toast.

So, what can you do? Get insured. Get vaccinated. And be as vigilant about your health as possible. According to the report's writers:

"Continued timely and regular screening for women who are meeting current cervical cancer screening recommendations must continue ... the greatest impact on current cervical cancer will be to screen women who have not been screened within the past five years."