In rural western Alabama, black women die disproportionately from cervical cancer — one of the most preventable and treatable cancers. However, this should not be the case.
I recently started working as a community-based advocate in partnership with the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice (SRBWI) and Human Rights Watch, two organizations working to address the cervical cancer disparity of which black women in the rural South have been affected since 2018. What has struck me most since joining the SRBWI/Human Rights Watch team is the fact that cervical cancer is highly preventable and treatable, yet so many women are dying — especially black women — still have the disease.
While highly preventable, black women living in rural communities like mine do not always have access to critical, life-saving information and services such as HPV vaccine and cervical cancer screening and follow-up, putting us at great risk of developing the disease and to die from.
I have a relative who was diagnosed with cervical cancer, so it’s an illness that hits me close to home. My relative was not given any information on how to prevent cervical cancer nor did she have access to proper reproductive health care, so unfortunately she was unable to take the necessary steps to prevent the disease. Although we know that the HPV vaccine plays an important role in preventing cervical cancer, as well as several other types of cancer, and that it is recommended for both boys and girls as young as 11 or 12, so few people in my community know for sure Vaccine information. Our local schools don’t share this information with parents, and often medical providers don’t talk about the vaccine either. Personally, I haven’t seen widespread efforts by public health officials to publicize the vaccine. As a result, many people in my community don’t even know what the HPV vaccine is or where to get it.
Aside from the lack of such life-saving cervical cancer prevention information, other barriers to care, such as transportation, a lack of pelvic care in many rural counties, and Alabama’s failure to expand Medicaid, are additional challenges faced by many black women in rural areas who are uninsured and living in poverty prevent them from accessing health screening and follow-up care. The cost of care for women diagnosed with cervical cancer can be prohibitive. Research has shown that the cost for women diagnosed at a late stage can be well over $150,000, and even with insurance, patients account for an estimated 4% of their own costs, on average. (The average cost of the HPV vaccine is about $250, but this is covered by many insurance companies as well as programs that offer the vaccine at little or no cost to those who are uninsured.
Access to information, adequate reproductive health services, and affordable health insurance represent areas where changing policy and redirecting government resources could have life-saving effects without requiring much more than determination.
We must focus on the needs of rural Black women and address historical injustices that prevent us from accessing comprehensive cervical cancer care, beginning with ensuring access to critical information about the HPV vaccine and affordable cervical cancer screening and aftercare. We—Alabama citizens, healthcare providers, advocacy groups, and policymakers—must all unite to address these obstacles, especially when the resources to do so are available! Let’s eradicate cervical cancer by taking the steps necessary to prevent it before it starts.
Stacey Bennison is a lifelong resident of Greene County, Alabama. She has 2 children and 5 grandchildren. Stacey is a community-based advocate working in partnership with SRBWI and Human Rights Watch on cervical cancer awareness and advocacy in Alabama’s Black Belt. Most recently, in addition to her work with SRBWI and Human Rights Watch, Stacey worked with the Center for Global Health Innovation to help Greene County residents get to COVID-19 vaccination appointments and helped distribute supplies during the Pandemic.