WHITESBURG, Ky. -- Nationally, cervical cancer deaths have dropped 75 percent since the Pap test that finds pre-cancerous cells became routine more than half a century ago. But in Kentucky's mountains, cervical cancer continues to threaten women's lives at some of the highest rates in the United States, reports the Louisville Courier-Journal in its Sunday edition.
The newspaper cites Libby Caudill as an example. She hasn't been checked for cervical cancer since just after her son was born. He's now a 23-year-old Army soldier serving in Iraq.
"There's a lot of people around here who don't get screened," said the 59-year-old retiree. That puts them at high risk for a preventable cancer that has largely been controlled in the United States, reports the C-J.
"It is comparable to a Third World country," said Katie Dollarhide, of Whitesburg, who helps run a cervical cancer research project and prevention program called Faith Moves Mountains.
Women in Eastern Kentucky get cervical cancer at a rate more than a third higher than the U.S. average -- higher than reported rates in Pakistan, Afghanistan and China. Death rates in Appalachian Kentucky are also far higher than the U.S. average, the newspaper reports.
The reasons behind the higher incidence and deaths are similar to those in the developing world. Poverty and lack of health insurance combine with doctor shortages, transportation problems and a cultural tendency for women to care for others while neglecting their own health.
All of this makes it less likely that they will get adequate care and means some are not screened for cervical cancer for decades.
Joyce Ray of Cumberland has gone even longer than Caudill; she had her last Pap test after the birth of her ninth child 38 years ago, reports the Courier-Journal.
Experts say Appalachian women could benefit from the same interventions as their counterparts in the developing world, including a low-cost vaccine against the sexually transmitted virus that causes most cervical cancers.
A. Bennett Jenson, a University of Louisville researcher who helped invent the current $360 vaccine, Gardasil, is working on a version using Kentucky tobacco that he hopes will sell for less than $3.
Although his research was inspired by suffering women in India -- who develop cervical cancer at rates far higher than Eastern Kentuckians -- Jenson said it could also help tens of thousands in Appalachia, as well, the newspaper reports.
"Along with the vaccine will come an infrastructure and a way for screening to be done," he said.
As Jenson and his team continue their research, doctors, government health officials and others are reaching out to educate, screen and treat Eastern Kentucky women, while some are fighting for more funding for a government program that now screens one in five eligible women, reports the C-J.
Joanne Dudash-Taylor, of Cumberland, told the Louisville Courier-Journal such efforts are crucial so that other women don't have to suffer like she did in 2000, when doctors treated her for cervical cancer that had spread. She vividly recalls clumps of hair on her pillow after chemotherapy and the sensation that her "insides were falling out."
"People have it. They have no idea they got it," she said of the disease. "And when they find it, it's too late."
Copyright: The Louisville Courier-Journal