Despite overall declines in cervical death rates in the U.S., certain groups of women are significantly more likely to die from the disease, which is likely due to underlying disparities access to health care, according to a new report from the National Cancer Institute.
The investigators found that women living in areas with high death rates from Cervical cancer were less likely to have a usual source of health care or to use preventive services, such as cancer screening.
High rates of Cervical cancer “are markers for a lot of other events,” according to study author Dr. Harold P. Freeman, director of the National Cancer Institute’s Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities in Rockville, Maryland.
Cervical cancer Definition
Cervical cancer is cancer of the uterine cervix, the portion of the uterus attached to the top of the vagina. Ninety percent of cervical cancers arise from the flattened or “squamous” cells covering the cervix. Most of the remaining 10% arise from the glandular, mucus-secreting cells of the cervical canal leading into the uterus.
Freeman added that all of the above diseases, like cervical cancer, can be screened for and treated.
In the case of Cervical cancer, annual Pap smears help diagnose cervical cancer in its very early stages, when it can be very effectively treated, he said. It’s a “cancer from which, presumably, no woman should die.”
However, 4,000 women still die every year from cervical cancer, Freeman said, probably because, in part, they have limited access to services to detect the cancer in its early stages.
But to help reduce cervical cancer rates, experts also need to educate women about why it’s important to be screened, and how to do it. “We need to couple education to access,” Freeman told.
In their analysis, Freeman and his team reviewed the available study findings on Cervical cancer rates in the U.S. and the circumstances of women living in areas where death rates remain high.
They found that cervical cancer death rates are generally declining in the U.S., but remain high among African-American women in the south, women living along the Mexican border, white women in Appalachia, American Indians in the Northern Plains, Vietnamese-American women, and Alaska Natives.
“These women tend to have a fragmented health care system,” Freeman noted.
Freeman and his team summarize their findings in the NCI report Excess Cervical Cancer Mortality: A Marker for Low Access to Health Care in Poor Communities.
Cervical cancer Symptoms
Most often, cervical cancer in its earliest and most treatable stages does not cause any symptoms. When there are symptoms, the most common are:
- Persistent vaginal discharge, which may be pale, watery, pink, brown, blood streaked, or dark and foul-smelling
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding, especially between menstrual periods, after intercourse or douching, and after menopause, which gradually becomes heavier and longer
Symptoms of advanced cervical cancer may include:
- Loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue
- Pelvic, back, or leg pain
- Leaking of urine or feces from the vagina
- Bone fracture
Previous research, also out of the National Cancer Institute, has shown that Cervical cancer rates trended downward between 1975 and 2000, but women in high poverty counties had at least a one-third higher incidence than women in low poverty counties.
Revision date: June 21, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD