Our nation is in the midst of a health care crisis and many feel overwhelmed by the rising costs of insurance and doctor’s visits. During this government limbo, it is imperative not to lose sight of the importance of preventative medicine.
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness month. Cervical cancer seems rare when compared to the prevalence of prostate, breast and lung cancers, but the statistics are nothing to sneeze at. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the National Institute of Health, there were an estimated 12,340 new cases of cervical cancer in 2013 and 4,030 deaths from the disease.
NCI statistics show the number of deaths from cervical cancer has been dropping by about 2.5 percent each year for the past decade and that 68 percent of patients survive five or more years after being diagnosed with the disease.
Preventative medicine is to thank for growing survivial rates. Health care coverage that offers annual exams and cancer screenings saves lives.
Like mine, for example.
During college I had annual women’s health exams each year thanks to Planned Parenthood’s sliding-fee scale. Without programs that offer low-cost health care, uninsured college students can’t afford checkups. We simply wouldn’t get them.
In September 2009, I received a letter following my yearly appointment. How strange, I thought to myself, as I opened up the confidential envelope. My pap smear had contained “atypical squamous cells” but showed there was no presence of human papilloma virus (HPV), a leading cause of cervical cancer. Because these were just abnormal cells, the recommended treatment is simple yet agonizing: wait. Wait until the next year and get tested again to see if there are any changes.
The following year, I sat in the same waiting room, filled with dread. Sure enough, I received another letter saying that I had the same abnormal cells as before and, thankfully, no HPV.
Again I waited. A change for the worse meant that these cells could develop into cervical cancer. My cells hadn’t changed, meaning they haven’t developed more severe abnormalities.
I might have walked around oblivious to the warning signs evident within my body had I not been examined. Now that I know I am at risk for cervical cancer, I make wiser decisions about my health. My family history is riddled with cancer, but I know that if my condition advances I will catch it and treat it before it’s too late.
Cancer is not a young person or an old person disease. Each and every one of us has been touched by cancer through a family member, a friend or a colleague. Now is not the time to take risks when it comes to health screenings. Diseases left undetected and untreated can cause lifelong, life-changing consequences.
Emily Colomeda, health services director for the Lake County Public Health Department (LCPHD), said any time doctors can catch cancer early is better for the outcome of the patient.
“With cervical cancer in particular, by the time you have symptoms, it’s almost too late to treat it,” Colomeda said.
Free and low-cost programs are available. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services offers a program called Plan First that provides family planning services for eligible Montana women.
Women ages 19 through 44 who are able to bear children and are not presently pregnant without any other family planning coverage can apply for the program, which covers family planning related services such as office visits, contraceptive supplies, laboratory services, testing and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.
Colomeda said the health department can bill insurance and they offer a sliding-fee scale for patients based on income. Colomeda said their services are the best bang for your buck because LCPHD provides the services at a lower cost than other clinics in Lake County.
Colomeda said LCPHD can do annual, breast and pelvic exams. Each visit is scheduled for 30 minutes with a nurse practitioner and their doctors can take as much time as a patient needs. She said their clinic provides a lot of education and counseling that a woman may not get from a regular doctor’s office.
Patients can get information on Plan First or other LCPH services by calling the health department or by stopping by their office at 802 Main Street in Polson.
It remains to be seen what will happen with the Affordable Care Act and family planning coverage. Women should not wait for the government to decide before they begin to take charge of their reproductive health.
Because cancer doesn’t care if you have health insurance.
Read all of Jessica's writing on Muck Rack