Guest opinion: Information on cervical cancer will save lives
This past November, I spoke with a 32-year-old mom at the day care where I work part time in Camden, a small town in rural Wilcox County in Alabama’s Black Belt. I shared information on cervical cancer prevention and the HPV vaccine, which protects against several types of cancer. I was shocked that this mom, who regularly attends medical appointments and visits her OB-GYN, had never heard of the vaccine. And she was outraged as well, wondering why this information had never been shared with her. She was grateful that I spoke with her and she immediately made an appointment for her 13-year-old daughter to receive the vaccine.
Unfortunately, this conversation isn’t unusual. As part of my involvement since August 2022 as an advocate working in partnership with the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice (SRBWI) and Human Rights Watch, I’ve had so many conversations with people in my community around cervical cancer prevention and the HPV vaccine. I’ve come to realize just how little information my community has on their sexual and reproductive health. I’ve talked with women who haven’t had Pap tests in years because they didn’t know they should be getting them, and so many other parents who had also never heard of the HPV vaccine. This is lifesaving information that everyone should have, and it’s alarming and infuriating how few people do.
Cervical cancer is highly preventable and treatable, yet approximately 4,200 women die of the disease each year in the U.S., and Black women die at alarming rates. In Alabama, Black women die from cervical cancer at a much higher rate than white women (4.7 versus 2.9 per 100,000), and Black women living in rural counties, like mine, have the highest mortality rates in the entire state. Previous research by SRBWI and Human Rights Watch in Alabama and Georgia documents how lack of access to information on sexual health contributes to preventable cervical cancer deaths, and I’m sadly seeing the same patterns play out in my own community.
People don’t know what they don’t know. Without information, people don’t know how best to protect themselves and how to stay healthy. Sexual health education is optional in Alabama schools, and our State Code requires a focus on abstinence. As a result, most young people aren’t learning about their sexual and reproductive health in schools, and too many adults don’t have accurate information to share either. In rural counties like mine, there are real challenges just getting to a doctor or to the health department for an appointment or information, or getting information on the internet when broadband isn’t reliable.
Over the past few months, I’ve been doing everything I can do to change this, and I’ll continue to do so during January, which is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and long after. I’ve tabled at community events, including health fairs and community rallies. I’ve talked to parents and young people. I’ve visited the health department to get more information on the services they offer. I’ve handed out resources and brochures wherever I go. Now that I have this information, I’m determined to do everything I can to make sure my fellow community members do too. And I’m already seeing what a difference it makes. I’ve heard from four parents who got their children vaccinated against HPV after talking with me.
But it shouldn’t be on me to change this. Everyone should have information to prevent cervical cancer and information on the HPV vaccine, and women living in counties like mine that are predominantly Black and have been neglected for too long face bigger barriers in getting it. We need to do more to make sure everyone has information and resources to prevent cervical cancer. Requiring schools to provide comprehensive sexual health education is just a first step, but I’m confident it would make a big difference.
Linda Finklea is a longtime member of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice (SRBWI) in Wilcox County, Alabama. She works part-time at a day care in her community and is passionate about improving the health and well-being of her community members. Linda is a community-based advocate working in partnership with SRBWI and Human Rights Watch on cervical cancer education and advocacy in Alabama’s Black Belt.