Don’t Ghost Your Gyno: Why Screenings Are Critical for Black Women's Reproductive Health
By Jovonni R. Spinner, MPH, CHES
Cervical cancer is one of the easiest cancers to prevent and cure. Despite this fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in 2015, almost two thousand black women were diagnosed with the disease. Followed by Hispanic women, Black women are the second largest group to be impacted by cervical cancer and have the worst 5-year survival rates among any racial group. Cervical cancer happens when cells within the cervix start to grow abnormally. Early detection of these cells through screenings is critical, because many precancerous changes in the cervix can begin in your 20’s and 30’s.
The most important thing you can do to protect your health is to get screened! CDC recommends, starting at age 21, to begin screening during your regular gynecological check-up. Ask your doctor to perform two routine screening tests— a Pap test, also known as a Pap smear and a human papillomavirus virus (HPV) test. The pap smear looks for any changes to the cells in the cervix which may be precancerous. The HPV test looks for the actual virus that can cause some of these changes. These screenings are recommended by the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), who recently revised the cervical cancer screening recommendations to retain co-testing, which is the combined Pap and HPV test. Don’t worry! Many health plans cover the USPSTF’s recommended screenings, so you will not have to pay anything out of pocket.
The cervix is a key reproductive organ because it connects the vagina and uterus, which means protecting it should be of great importance. The cervix’s job is to produce mucus, which changes in consistency throughout the menstrual cycle to either prevent or promote pregnancy. During childbirth, the cervix dilates (opens) to allow the baby to pass through and during menstruation opens slightly to allow menstrual flow to pass. That is why it is important to know the risk factors, warning signs, and steps you can take to protect your reproductive health.
Most cases of cervical cancer are linked to exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the most common STD in the United States. HPV is a virus that spreads through vaginal, anal, or oral sex and most commonly affects young adults, which are teens and people in their early 20’s. Other risk factors for cervical cancer include early sexual contact, multiple sexual partners, and birth control (oral contraceptives). The best ways to reduce your risk of cervical cancer are to always use a condom during sex, get vaccinated, and quit smoking.
During the early stages of cervical cancer, symptoms may not be present. However, if you notice any changes to your body, like heavy periods, pain during sex, vaginal discharge, or unexpected bleeding, alert your doctor immediately as these may be signs of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer could impact your ability to have children when you are ready, so be persistent until you get answers.
Reproductive health is very precious and that is why many black and women’s health organizations, like the Black Women’s Health Imperative and National Medical Association are applauding updated guidelines that support co-testing. Don’t let decisions made in your 20’s negatively impact you later in life. Take control of your health and make screening a part of your regular, routine check-up.
Jovonni R. Spinner, MPH, CHES is a seasoned public health professional with over 15 years of experience. She is a visionary public health professional committed to improving health equity through research, communications, multi-sector partnerships, and leadership coaching. She has a breadth of knowledge ranging from public health program design, implementation, and evaluation; health policy; health communications; and health promotion and education, along with subject matter expertise in disease areas (e.g. cardiovascular, respiratory, and vaccine preventable diseases). She is currently pursuing her DrPH from Morgan State University. Her research interests include women’s health, mental health, obesity, and nutrition. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter @jovonnispinner.