The number of women dying from cervical cancer is higher than previously thought – especially among black women.

A new study from John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health made the discovery when examining national death certificate data from the National Center for Health Statistics and the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) national cancer registries.

When the researchers filtered out those women who had undergone a hysterectomy (removal of the cervix), the number of black women in the US dying from cervical cancer rose 77%, with the same number in white women rising 47%.

Including women who had undergone a hysterectomy resulted in a cancer mortality rate of 5.7 per 100,000 per year and 3.2 per 100,000 per year in black and white women respectively. When excluding this subset of women, mortality rates jumped to 10.1 per 100,000 and 4.7 per 100,000 respectively.

In addition, many of those women dying from cervical cancer are over the age of 65 – the cutoff age for recommended cervical screening in the US.

The current age recommendation is due to the belief that the chance of cervical cancer in women over 65 is lower when, in fact, it seems the opposite is true.

“This is a preventable disease and women should not be getting it, let alone dying from it,” said study leader Anne Rositch, an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the Bloomberg School. “Since the goal of a screening program is to ultimately reduce mortality from cervical cancer, then you must have accurate estimates within the population targeted by those programmes – adult women with a cervix.

“These data tell us that as long as a woman retains her cervix, it is important that she continue to obtain recommended screening for cervical cancer since the risk of death from the disease remains significant well into older age.”

In general, black women are more likely to have hysterectomies due to their higher likelihood of developing small benign masses in the uterus called fibroids. Research has shown that black women are also likely to be diagnosed with later stage cervical cancer and may receive different treatment to white women.

Regardless, Rositch isn’t sure as to why older and black women are dying from cervical cancer at higher rates.

“While trends over time show that the racial disparities gap has been closing somewhat, these data emphasise that it should remain a priority area,” said Rositch. “Black women are dying of cervical cancer at twice the rate as white women in the United States and we need to put in place measures to reverse the trend.”

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