THE PLANK NOVEMBER 20, 2009
Like Michelle, we’re happy to see The New York Times giving front-page space to the new recommendations for mammograms and pap smears. And we, too, hope that the revised pap smear guidelines aren’t subjected to the same shameless politicization that quickly engulfed the mammogram ones. But we want to quibble with Michelle's point that “cervical cancer simply doesn't terrify women en masse the way breast cancer does.”
Breast cancer is indeed a much bigger threat to women. This year alone, according to the American Cancer Society, about 10 times as many women will die of breast cancer than of cervical cancer. But there's a generational gap when it comes to dread about these diseases. For women who are in their twenties, like us, cervical cancer is very high on the list of health fears. It’s not difficult to see why: We've come of age in the Gardasil era, with everyone from public health officials to gynecologists to even teachers telling us how urgently we need the vaccine to protect us against HPV, the virus that causes the vast majority of cervical cancer cases. (The FDA recommends vaccinating girls as young as nine.) And we’re constantly reminded of how ubiquitous HPV is: The CDC estimates that 20 million Americans currently have it, while another 6.2 million will be infected each year. Stunningly, more than half of college-aged women get HPV within the first four years of having sex.
It’s safe to say that the increased focus on HPV screening and vaccination has been a good thing, because the rate of cervical cancer deaths has dropped significantly over the last 50 years. But, like the Gardasil push, more screening has also heightened anxiety among young women. You'd be hard-pressed to find a woman our age who--if she hasn't faced the situation herself--doesn't know someone who has dealt with the fear that an abnormal pap smear causes, the subsequent, painful test to determine if there are pre-cancerous cells on the cervix, and the (again painful) surgical procedure to remove any dangerous cells. Add to all of that the sexual stigma that accompanies cervical cancer (it is, after all, a cancer that you get from a highly contagious STD), and it's clear why so many young women are freaked out.
Here’s hoping that, in addition to reducing harmful and invasive procedures that science deem unnecessary, the new pap smear guidelines help women breathe a little easier.