ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — More women in the U.S. are falling behind on cervical cancer screenings and the pandemic has made the trend worse.
According to the CDC, there was an 84% decline in early detection screenings during the April of 2020, compared to the same time in the previous five years. Doctors say it’s a trend we are seeing locally too.
Hannah Farley, the Promotion, Education and Targeted Outreach Manager at the Cancer Services Program of the Finger Lakes region, says they have seen screenings for cervical, colon and breast cancer all go down during the past two years.
“A lot of that is still fear of being exposed to COVID, some is people are finding it very difficult to get into the doctor’s office and make that appointment in a timely manner,” Farley said. “They might be pushed five, six months out, in some cases, for their cervical cancer screening, and I know personally, that happened to me. In 2020, I was pushed five months out, and I got it, but still.”
Cervical cancer deaths have been going down over the past few decades, and doctors say this is because of the Pap smear test, which is a routine cervical cancer screening for women between the ages of 21 and 65. The tests are the best way to figure out if you have any precancerous cells.
“If there are any abnormal precancerous cells, any precancerous cells within the cervix, they can be detected before they have the chance to develop into cancer,” Farley said. “If you have a Pap test that comes back positive for abnormal cells, it doesn’t mean that you have cancer. The thing about cervical cancer, it tends to be a slow growing cancer, and so it really doesn’t occur overnight. And it begins with those abnormal cells that can be detected with these tests.”
But during the pandemic, less women have been receiving these screenings, which is something doctors want to see change.
Dr. Elizabeth Bostock, Chairperson of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Rochester General Hospital, says usually cervical cancer is asymptomatic until it’s advanced, making the tests more important. If you push off screening, there are some risks.
“You run the risk of conditions being undetected and advancing further than we’d like them to, and needing more aggressive interventions,” Bostock said. “So with regard to pap smears, advancing to more of a precancerous condition that needs a more aggressive intervention, for example.”
Along with Pap smears, doctors also saying getting your HPV vaccine is important too.
“The majority of cervical cancers are caused by human papilloma virus (HPV). So while it is not perfect, as any vaccine is not perfect, one of the biggest things to prevent it is getting the vaccination when you’re young. So this really applies to that population under 26,” Bostock said.
To help prevent HPV and cervical cancer, Bostock also recommends safe sex activity, like using condoms and limiting the number of your sexual partners.
“The third leg of this I would say is really healthy life behaviors that keep your immune system functioning well. So good nutrition, good physical activity, good sleep and working on managing stress,” Bostock said.
Smoking, age, having more than 3 kids, and taking birth control for more than 5 years, are also things that Farley says can increase your risk of cervical cancer.
“Most cervical cancers occur in women over the age of 30, so age is a big risk factor,” Farley said. “If you have a cervical cancer screening, and you don’t follow up with your provider, after they detect abnormal cells within that screening, then you’re also at an increased risk. Because if you get that Pap test done, or you get the high-risk HPV test done, and they detect high risk HPV or they detect those abnormal cells, you really should just go back to speak with your provider and figure out the next steps.”
And while Pap tests are important, Bostock says they aren’t the only benefit that comes out of your health care visit. She says it’s also important to just talk about lifestyles and keeping ourselves healthy and balanced.
“I think that’s particularly critical during this pandemic when a lot of people are highly stressed, dealing with a world where our connections to each other are reduced, and we really need some place to talk and think about how we’re living and how we make the adjustments necessary in this situation,” Bostock said. “So your women’s health care provider is there to help you deal with all the aspects of your life, not just your cervix. You’re more than a cervix to us.”
If you don’t have health insurance and can’t pay for cervical cancer screening, the Cancer Services Program of the Finger Lakes region says you can reach out to them for help. They can be contacted by calling (585) 224-3070, or clicking here.