British reality star Jade Goody, who rose to stardom overseas by exposing nearly every aspect of her life to a hungry media audience, has recently died, with the media in tow, of cervical cancer. She was only 27 and has left behind two young sons, ages four and five.
Despite the sensationalized nature of Ms. Goody's case, her story is tragic, as are the stories of so many other women worldwide who are struck by cervical cancer in the prime of their lives.
I was 25 when I was diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer and my world was turned upside down. After a radical hysterectomy and weeks of tough chemotherapy and radiation treatment, I was declared cancer-free. I survived and consider myself lucky. But I'll never be able to bear my own children -- something I had always dreamed about -- and I'll have to deal with medical complications from my treatment for the rest of my life.
Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women around the world, killing nearly 300,000 women each year. In the United States, the American Cancer Society estimated that 11,070 women would be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2008, and that 3,870 women would die from it.
The most frustrating aspect of cervical cancer is that it is almost completely preventable. Experts know that it is caused by "high-risk" types of a common infection - the human papillomavirus, or HPV. And we now have available preventive technologies, including the Pap test, the HPV test and the HPV vaccine, to help stop this disease in its tracks.
Despite these advances, why are so many women still dying? There are two key problems.
First, women need access to screening. In the U.S., approximately half of all cervical cancer cases are in women who have never been screened. Minority women and those with lower incomes are less likely to have access to screening programs and consequently, are affected by cervical cancer at higher rates.
Second, women need to know what technologies are available and appropriate for them. At around age 21, women should get screened with the Pap test, the traditional way to screen for cervical cancer. When women reach 30, they should get an HPV test along with their Pap. The HPV test detects the virus that causes cervical cancer. Studies show that using both tests together to screen women aged 30 and older offers the best protection against cervical cancer. This approach is included in leading medical organizations' screening guidelines.
HPV vaccination now offers significant potential to reduce cervical cancer rates. One HPV vaccine is already FDA-approved for girls and young women aged 9 to 26, and another vaccine is under FDA review. Both vaccines have been shown to be 100 percent effective - in women not previously infected - at preventing infection from the two HPV types that cause 70 percent of all cervical cancers. Importantly, women who have been vaccinated still need to be screened regularly.
Having advanced technologies, however, is not enough. Every woman and girl must be informed about and have access to these preventive methods. In January a number of leading advocacy groups, launched the U.S. Pearl of Wisdom Campaign to Prevent Cervical Cancer. It is a united, global effort to help ensure that women and girls everywhere know about and have access to lifesaving cervical cancer prevention tools. The campaign also promotes the Pearl of Wisdom as the global symbol for cervical cancer prevention.
I encourage women everywhere to educate themselves about how to prevent cervical cancer. And then spread the word to your mother, daughters, sisters, friends, and others. Please help make the elimination of cervical cancer part of Jade Goody's lasting legacy.
Felder is the founder of Tamika & Friends, Inc., a national nonprofit organization that raises awareness about cervical cancer, and a partner in the Pearl of Wisdom campaign to prevent cervical cancer.