'No Woman Should Ever Die of Cervical Cancer'

A nonprofit organization helps narrow the racial gap in cancer deaths
Dr. Summer Dewdney

A nonprofit organization that helped narrow the racial gap in breast cancer deaths has expanded its scope to eliminating cervical cancer deaths for all women in Chicago.   

Housed and developed at Rush University Medical Center, the Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force was established in 2008 in response to research showing that the city’s black women were dying of breast cancer at much higher rates than white women. In November, the task force changed its name to Equal Hope, “because all women should have equal hope of high quality health care, and anyone facing serious illness should have equal hope for their future,” said the organization's executive director, Anne Marie Murphy, PhD.

“No woman should ever die of cervical cancer, a disease that’s almost 100 percent preventable. We know what causes it, we know how to prevent it, and it’s time to end it,” she added. 

Dr. Summer Dewdney, who is co-leading Equal Hope’s cervical cancer effort, lamented that the promise of being able to prevent cervical cancer has not mattered to the many patients she sees with advanced stages of the disease.  

“I see these young women who are in their 30s or 40s with these horrible cervical cancers — advanced stage 3, 4. These are diseases you should be seeing in Third World countries or where they don’t have health care,” said Dewdney, a gynecologic oncologist at Rush. 

She was aware of the breast cancer effort being led by Dr. David Ansell, Rush’s senior vice president for community health equity and co-founder of the task force. “So I just knocked on his door and said, ‘Hey, can we do this for cervical cancer?’”

’Every woman that we see is a missed opportunity’

The task force and its hospital and clinical partners have been able to reduce disparities in breast cancer mortality in Chicago from a 62% death gap to a 39% gap over the past decade. They achieved this dramatic, life-saving result by improving the quality of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment for women in underserved communities, helping them navigate the health care system, and advocating for policy change. 

Dewdney and colleagues from across Chicago are now attempting to apply the lessons learned in breast cancer to cervical cancer. “Every woman that we see is a missed opportunity and an example that the system has failed,” Dewdney said.

Using data provided by the Chicago Department of Health, Equal Hope researchers from Rush, Northwestern Medicine and University of Chicago Medicine found that cervical cancer racial disparities were shocking, as shown in the following data:

  • Between 1999 and 2013, the racial mortality disparity in Chicago almost doubled, and black women now die of cervical cancer at a rate 147% higher than white women.
  • Chicago’s rates of cervical cancer incidence (occurrence) and mortality are considerably higher than national averages. Incidence is 39% higher and the death rate is 60% higher.

Dewdney explained that eradication of the disease is possible because it is almost 100% preventable by vaccination and pre-cancer screening. Australia, for example, recently announced it expects to eradicate cervical cancer by 2028, and Rwanda has succeeded in getting 94% of its adolescents fully vaccinated within three years.

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