Blair Horner: One cancer that we can stop, if women get screened

Cancer is a horrible word.  Everyone is affected, 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will get a cancer diagnosis in their lifetimes.  Everyone is affected – either personally or when it impacts someone they love.

But cancer is a word that is describes a broad category of diseases.  Prostate, breast, lung and colon cancers are the most frequently diagnosed.  And cancers can result from different exposures – environmental ones like smoking, excessive skin exposures to the sun or indoor tanning booths, or personal behaviors – cancers that result from poor nutrition or obesity.  But some cancers are caused by viruses.

Each year, about 12,000 U.S. women receive diagnoses of cervical cancer and over 4,000 women die of the disease. In New York State this year it is estimated that 850 women will be diagnosed with uterine cervix cancer and that nearly 300 will die.

Yet doctors view cervical cancer as a disease that can easily be prevented and treated.  Precancerous lesions and early cancer are easily detected through Pap smears; lesions can be removed in a minimally invasive procedure before they turn into cancer.  And since 2006 there has been a vaccine against human papillomavirus, or HPV, the sexually transmitted virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer.

Too often, doctors and public-health experts say, women who don’t get regular screenings — because they don’t have health insurance or for other reasons — discover the problem when the disease has already progressed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites disproportionate levels of cervical cancer among the uninsured and underinsured.  

Pap smears are generally covered by health insurance, and many plans also cover the HPV tests and vaccine. But those without insurance face high costs — about $360 for the vaccine (plus administrative costs, which can raise that figure to $400 or more), about $20-$40 for a Pap smear (plus the charge for the office visit) and $80 to more than $100 for an HPV test.

However, there are programs that can help women struggling with the costs, including New York State’s Cancer Service Program (CSP), which screens low-income women who are uninsured or underinsured.

CSP offers breast, cervical and colon cancer screening to people without health coverage.  Nearly 3 million New Yorkers are uninsured.  The CSP helps lower health care costs through early detection and treatment.  The Department of Health has estimated that the CSP could save as much as $46 million annually from the early detection of cancer.

While the federal health care reform, the Affordable Care Act, greatly expands health insurance coverage, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers will remain uninsured or underinsured even after health care reform is fully implemented, and will continue to rely on this program for access to cancer screening and treatment.

Clearly, programs such as CSP still need to exist for the New Yorkers who will still lack insurance even after implementation of federal health care reform.  Governor Cuomo’s budget should ensure that this life-saving program continues to get adequate funding.

But for those women with insurance coverage, it makes sense to keep up with regular Pap tests and it makes sense for parents to consider the HPV vaccine for both their daughters as well as their sons.

This is one cancer that can be treated easily and may even be preventable.

Blair Horner is the Vice President for Advocacy for the American Cancer Society, Eastern Division.  His commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the American Cancer Society.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of this station or its management.