Turquoise Tuesday, January 21, 2020, is cervical cancer awareness day for all American Indians and Alaska Natives. Turquoise Tuesday aims to educate people about the importance of early detection and remind them to stay up to date on their cancer screenings. The United States Congress also designated the entire month of January as Cervical Health Awareness Month to bring awareness to this very preventable disease.
Cervical cancer is a disease where abnormal cells grown on the cervix. It impacts nearly 13,000 people in the U.S. each year with higher frequency among those older than 30. More than 4,000 people die from the disease annually. All individuals who have a cervix should be screened according to national guidelines. This includes transgender, gender non-conforming or “two-spirit” Native patients.
Cervical cancer disproportionately affects Native communities. American Indian and Alaska Native women are nearly twice as likely to develop cervical cancer compared to white women and four times as likely to die from it. Additionally, they are often diagnosed at its later stages, making successful treatment and cure more difficult. American Indians and Alaska Natives cite a number of barriers to cancer screening such as cultural reluctance to access Western medicine for nonacute health problems, transportation difficulties, lack of childcare, negative perception of health providers, long waits for appointments, poor patient–provider communication, provider time pressures and an underfunded health system.
Cervical cancer is the most common human papillomavirus (HPV)-associated cancer among American Indian and Alaska Native women while oropharyngeal cancer is the most common HPV-associated cancer among Native men. American Indian and Alaska Native women have the highest rates of HPV-associated cancer. Incidence rates vary by geographic region with the highest rates occurring in the Northern Plains, Southern Plains and Alaska.
The HPV vaccine is recommended for everyone ages 9-26 to protect against HPV cases that lead to nine of out 10 cervical cancers. HPV is a common infection that causes 99.9 percent of cervical cancers and the majority of other HPV cancers. The vaccine prevents the types of HPV that cause 90 percent of these cancers. Getting the vaccine now, when it is most effective, will protect your child from cancers later in life. The vaccine is free for all American Indians through the Vaccines for Children program.
Federal programs, such as the Indian Health Service and the Center for Disease Control’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program for have improved screening for American Indians and Alaska Natives. Talk to your health care provider to schedule your next Pap test and to learn more about cervical cancer screenings and routine care. Papanicolaou smear (Pap) tests look for cell changes on the cervix during a pelvic exam. Regular Pap tests are the only way to find cancer early. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that those younger than age 30 have a Pap test every three years, while those age 30-65 should either have a standalone Pap test every three years or a Pap test in conjunction with an HPV test every five years.
The American Indian Cancer Foundation encourages everyone to wear turquoise clothing and jewelry, and to share photos on social media using the hashtag #TurquoiseTuesday to raise awareness for cervical cancer and to honor relatives who have faced or are currently facing a cervical cancer diagnosis. Tell your friends and family about Turquoise Tuesday and ask them to wear turquoise to support breast health awareness.
Cervical cancer can be prevented and is highly curable when detected early. No one should suffer from cervical cancer — regular cervical cancer screenings saves lives.