When I was in medical school, I went to my student health center for an annual check-up and Pap test. It was a routine visit, and I had no reason to expect anything out of the ordinary.
A week later, my doctor told me that my results were abnormal, and I would need to be retested—a phrase uttered to more than 3 million women in the U.S. each year.
Then three weeks later came the diagnosis: “You have what could be early cervical cancer.”
I was in shock. I had just studied the reproductive system as part of my coursework, and I’d been startled to learn the statistics: Every day, 35 women across the U.S. are diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer, according to data from the CDC. Hundreds more are diagnosed with precursors that could lead to it.
After a test confirming that I had a high-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion (HSIL), a serious precursor to cervical cancer, I underwent a procedure called a loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP). LEEPs are short procedures which use a small electrical wire loop to remove the abnormal cells. Thankfully, for years after that, my Pap tests were clear.
Then after another routine annual exam, I was told that I had to come in to get re-tested. The same fear that overtook me years ago returned.
This time, I was diagnosed with early stage cervical cancer, or carcinoma-in-situ.
I was 27 years old. I had just gotten engaged. We both wanted kids. It’s something we had talked about often, and I was terrified that my diagnosis might mean that having children of my own was now an impossibility. The procedure I needed to undergo, a cervical conization, involved removing a portion of my cervix, which I knew increased the likelihood of miscarriage and preterm birth.
In my time as a physician and public health leader, I’ve never shared this story. Nearly a decade later, I am happy to report that I am cancer-free. Today, I’m the mother of a 17-month old son—a happy, healthy boy who is the joy of my life.
I was fortunate to have access to routine screening, safe and effective surgery, and close monitoring. My life could be very different today if I hadn’t had access to routine and timely screenings, and immediate interventions.
Cervical cancer can be caused by several types of the human papilloma virus (HPV). Because cervical cancer generally progresses slowly, early diagnosis is often crucial to detecting the disease when there are curative treatment options available.
It’s difficult for me to talk about this experience, but, as I stepped into my role as president of Planned Parenthood, I’ve been thinking of the many ways I can explain how fundamental reproductive health care is to leading a happy, fulfilling life. Given that January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, I’m taking this opportunity to raise awareness by talking about my own experience.
I am alive today because of that routine test that detected my cancer in its early stages.
Routine pap and HPV screenings save thousands of women from dying of cervical cancer every year. The HPV vaccine is also a critical prevention tool, as it protects against the types of HPV that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers. The HPV vaccination didn’t exist when I was first diagnosed, but, today, it likely prevents thousands of patients from going what I went through.
But the fact remains: More than 4,000 women die of cervical cancer each year, including a disproportionate amount of women of color. Black and Hispanic women are diagnosed with cervical cancer at higher rates than white women are, and they are more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage, making it harder to treat. A recent study in the journal Cancer, which looked only at women who have never had a hysterectomy, found that black women are actually dying from cervical cancer at twice the rate of white women.
It is no coincidence that women of color also have high rates of being uninsured or underinsured. Without access to quality, affordable reproductive health services—which are standard medical care—women will die because they are forced to forego the necessary prevention and treatment for cervical cancer.
Today, as president of Planned Parenthood, I’m grateful that I’m in a position to do something about this injustice. I lead an organization that provides access to cervical cancer screenings, HPV vaccinations, and the full range of reproductive health services for all of our patients. We offer Pap testing at every single one of our more than 600 health centers, and in 2017 alone, we provided more than 270,000 Pap tests and delivered tens of thousands of HPV vaccinations.
Planned Parenthood also serves 41 percent of all Title X patients, which is the nation’s only federally-funded reproductive health and family planning program, providing low-cost or no-cost reproductive health care services, like Pap tests, to 4 million women with low incomes. The Trump-Pence administration recently proposed a rule that would restrict access to Title X, which means that millions of women could lose access to critical health care services that help prevent or detect cervical cancer.
It’s because of early diagnosis and treatment that I am alive and raising a family of my own. No one should die of cervical cancer because they can’t access quality, affordable reproductive healthcare. As president of Planned Parenthood, I’m committed to using my platform to raise awareness around the importance of reproductive health care.
More of us have these stories than you may think. I encourage you to share yours.