We can end Cervical Cancer in our lifetime. Alabama’s women need only take three steps to WIPE OUT this deadly cancer.

By: Nancy Wright, Director, Cancer Prevention and Control Division, Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH)

I was raised in Butler County, Alabama, surrounded by caring family members and friends. I married my high school sweetheart, and we chose to raise our two daughters in Butler County so we could offer them the same opportunities we had to be surrounded by family and be part of a community that cares and supports one another. This upbringing is what motivated both my husband and me to pursue careers in public health. I have had the opportunity to spend the past 20 years of my career working to educate citizens about breast, cervical, colorectal, prostate, lung, and skin cancers, among others. I have worked to promote prevention of cancer through healthy habits and to promote screening to find cancer early when it is most treatable. I’ve worked with cancer survivors and their families, advocates, universities, businesses, churches, and communities to host free screening events, improve access to care in rural areas, and raise awareness of the importance of cancer screening. It has been the most positive, action-oriented, hopeful, and fulfilling experience.

However, despite all we have done, my home state has one of the highest rates of death from cervical cancer in the United States. As a matter of fact, we are one of the top five states that have the highest rate in the nation. This is especially unacceptable given that cervical cancer is one of the only cancers that can be stopped--actually eliminated--in our lifetime. This made me reflect on these past 20 years as a public health servant. The common thread in most of our accomplishments in Alabama has been that when women and communities come together to fight against cancer, they make a difference. I know from this experience, if we work together, we can end cervical cancer in our communities.

It takes three steps to eliminate cervical cancer: 1) Increase HPV vaccination, 2) Increase cervical cancer screening through HPV/Pap tests, 3) Ensure women return to their health care providers for further testing and treatment when screening tests show abnormal cells.

Cervical cancer is caused by HPV, the human papilloma virus. Nearly everyone is exposed to this virus in their lifetime. For most people, their body destroys the virus, but for a small percentage of people, their body doesn’t destroy the virus. Over time, the virus can cause precancer which can lead to cervical cancer if not treated. The HPV vaccination ensures that the body is protected from the infection in the first place. It is important to vaccinate girls and boys when they are young, age 9-12 ideally, before they are exposed to the virus. Girls and boys can receive the vaccine from age 9-26. The HPV vaccine actually protects girls from getting cervical cancer. It also helps to protect against head and neck cancer and anal cancer in boys and girls and penile cancer in boys.

The second step is to get regular screening for cervical cancer. The HPV/Pap test can detect if a female has the HPV virus. The third step, follow-up/treatment, is important because it provides the opportunity for a health care provider to follow a woman more closely in the event of an abnormal cervical cancer screening. A second test may then be needed to examine the tissue and determine if there are precancerous cells; this test is called a colposcopy. Many women who find that their HPV/Pap test is positive, don’t return to their health care provider for the follow-up colposcopy. It is very important to follow up with your health care provider. A colposcopy determines if there are pre-cancer or cancer cells. If found early, the cells can be easily removed. If not found early, invasive cancer is possible and can lead to death.

For low-income women and children without health insurance coverage, the ADPH can provide the HPV vaccination at no charge. In addition, I manage a program called the Alabama Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (ABCCEDP) that provides the HPV/Pap test, colposcopy, and other needed tests to diagnose and treat cervical cancer at no cost to the women who live in Alabama. To learn more, call your local health department for information about HPV and the ABCCEDP Program. You can also call the ABCCEDP hotline at 1-877-252-3324 to find out where to get your HPV vaccination and where to get screened for cervical cancer.

The ADPH is committed to this public health problem; in May 2023, our State Health Officer launched an action plan to eliminate cervical cancer in Alabama. Called “Operation WIPE OUT,” the plan outlines the actions we can take as physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, business leaders, advocates, and community leaders to implement these three steps and WIPE OUT Cervical Cancer in our state. As a result, Alabama is the first and only state in the nation to announce its intent to eliminate cervical cancer. We are the first state to respond to the World Health Organization’s 2020 Call to Action to eliminate cervical cancer as a public health problem globally.

The Operation WIPE OUT founding partners include ADPH, TogetHER for Health, University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center, Rotary Club of Birmingham, Rotary Club of LaFayette, American Cancer Society, and Quality of Life Health Care Services. Since its launch, many other partners have joined, and all Alabamians are invited to join the collaboration and support the elimination of cervical cancer through HPV vaccination, screening, and follow-up/treatment. To find out more, visit our website.

Join me in this fight against cervical cancer. Help me end cervical cancer in Alabama. I have no doubt that everyone in our state will come together to promote these three steps in their communities and to support one another in this campaign to WIPE OUT Cervical Cancer. Knowing my daughters can grow up without fear of cervical cancer and that their children may not even know what cervical cancer is, is worth fighting for.

County health departments throughout Alabama provide a wide range of confidential and professional services. Contact your local county health department for additional information.

Mission: To promote, protect, and improve Alabama’s health

Vision: Healthy People. Healthy Communities. Healthy Alabama.