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Published:  Wednesday | April 21, 2010 in The Jamaica Gleaner

story by Monique Rainford, Contributor

 

Every time I have a discussion on cervical cancer, I think of Jenny. Maybe I remember her because she was a young, black woman, only 33 years old, just a few years older than I was when we met. Maybe I remember her because she was such a likeable person or because I felt so sorry that she had to die that way.

Jenny died of cervical cancer. She spent the last few weeks of her life in the hospital. It was my job as a young gynaecologist-in-training 'to round on her'. I visited her daily. Cancer had eroded her vagina through to her rectum and bladder and she was incontinent of both urine and stool. She had to wear adult diapers. Yet, I never heard her complain. I don't remember how old she was when she had her first Pap smear, or if she ever had one. Yet, I firmly believe that she did not have to die that way.

Since the introduction of the Pap smear in 1941, significantly fewer women suffer or die from cervical cancer. In Iceland, as many as 80 per cent fewer women die from this disease because of the Pap smear. In the United States, the death rate has decreased from 26,000 in 1941 to fewer than 4,000 women in 2006.

Collect a specimen

It is a simple test. A device called a speculum is inserted in the vagina and a wooden spatula and a thin brush are used to collect the specimen from the cervix. The specimen is preserved with a special solution and then sent to a specialist for interpretation.

Like any test, it is not perfect, and it will not prevent every woman from getting cervical cancer but it can still mean the difference between life and death.

Since the invention of the Pap smear, there have been other innovations to decrease a woman's risk of getting cervical cancer.

These include vaccines against certain types of the human papillomavirus, or HPV, which plays an integral role in the development of cervical cancer. There are two vaccines available in Jamaica, Cervarix and Gardasil, which protect women against infection with HPV types 16 and 18 which are responsible for about 70 per cent of cervical cancer. Unfortunately, both vaccines are expensive and hence inaccessible to a large proportion of Jamaican women.

This month is recognised as Cancer Awareness Month by the Jamaica Cancer Society and the focus is on cervical cancer. Women can have their Pap smear for less than $1,000 at this location. I hope that Jenny's story will inspire more women to have Pap smears and hopefully one day no woman will have to suffer and die the way she did.

Dr Monique Rainford is a consulting obstetrician and gynaecologist; email: yourhealth@gleanerjm.com.

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