Cervical Cancer Awareness Month has just passed, but the calendar’s flip to February should not stop the fight against a disease that primarily afflicts working-age women.
Once among the deadliest cancers for women, cervical cancer’s mortality rate has plummeted thanks to Pap and HPV tests. However, the success of such life-saving screenings only underscores the need for ongoing preventive vigilance.
“Awareness and testing have dramatically lowered the death rate of cervical cancer,” said Dr. Jennifer Chambers, chief medical officer at Capital Blue Cross. “But we cannot be complacent, because when not caught in time, the disease remains every bit the deadly threat it’s always been.”
Statistics actually suggest recent slippage in the cervical cancer fight. The American Cancer Society (ACS) last year projected that nearly 14,000 new cases would be diagnosed nationwide, resulting in nearly 4,300 deaths. That is slightly worse than Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from 2017, when there were 12,831 new diagnoses and 4,207 fatalities.
Despite steady improvement in survival rates, more than a third of Pennsylvania women diagnosed with cervical cancer will still die within five years, according to state Department of Health data.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the cervical cancer threat. The ACS reported a 94% plunge in weekly cervical cancer screenings in March 2020, when the pandemic first erupted in the United States, and 2,500 missed or delayed diagnoses from early March through early June.
All of this is particularly pertinent to the region’s employers, since it primarily strikes women in the prime of their working lives. According to the ACS, the disease is most frequently diagnosed in women age 35 to 44. In Pennsylvania, the state Department of Health reports, the median age of incidence is 52.
It’s a costly disease, too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts America’s annual cervical cancer bill at $1.6 billion. How much of that businesses absorb is unclear, but the CDC says annual productivity losses – due to missed work and employment disability – are $1,000 more for cancer survivors in general.
So how can employers help improve these bleak statistics? Encouraging prevention in various ways is a good place to start.
Capital BlueCross does just that. The health insurer:
- Reminds its members with no cervical cancer screening records of screening’s importance. This is done twice a year – during Cervical Cancer Awareness month in January and again during Gynecological Cancer Awareness month in September.
- Provides education, through member and employer-group newsletters, on screening’s importance and other preventive measures, including HPV vaccinations.
- Shares with its medical providers best practices for increasing screening rates and offers some providers incentives for good performance in this area.
- Shares screening information on social media.
- Provides employer toolkits – self-service, step-by-step instructions and suggestions for promoting screening among employees, as well as the ability to provide presentations and post exhibits.
“Obviously emphasizing the importance of cervical cancer screenings is an enormously effective first step,” Dr. Chambers said. “It’s important to take that step decisively by reaching out to your staff in multiple ways and promoting prevention.”