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Advocates rally for increased cancer screening funding amid record-high cervical cancer rates

More than 30 people from around the state rallied at the Alabama State House recently, calling on lawmakers to increase funding for a cervical cancer screening program targeting low-income residents.

Each year, around 13,000 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed, 4,000 of which are fatal. Data compiled between 2015 and 2019 found the death rate of cervical cancer to be 2.2 per 100,000 women annually nationwide.

In Alabama, particularly in the Black Belt region, those figures are much higher.

In 2018, Alabama had the single-highest death rate for cervical cancer. White women in Alabama had a cervical cancer death rate of 2.7 per 100,000, whereas black women had a rate of 5.2 per 100,000.

In 1996, Alabama launched its Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, a program that offers free breast and cervical cancer screenings for low-income women. Through 2020, more than 134,000 women have been screened through the program, with 3,227 cervical cancer cases being detected.

Given that cervical cancer is a highly preventable and curable form of cancer with a 93% survival rate if detected early, the program has likely saved countless lives. Those rallying at the State House last week, however, are calling on lawmakers to expand the program further.

“Today, we’re here advocating for increased funding for the Alabama Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program so that it can screen more women (and) provide the life-saving cervical cancer screenings that they really need,” said Annerieke Daniel, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Daniel told Alabama Daily News that she, along with advocates from Alabama Arise, a nonprofit organization that advocates for low-income Alabamians, and the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice, were at the State Capitol to call on lawmakers to increase the program’s funding to $1 million.

Funding for the program has been shaky over the years, with around $400,000 being allotted toward the program in 2007 before being completely defunded in 2008. This year, the program is receiving $600,000 from the state General Fund budget.

To be eligible for the program today, Alabama women must be between 40 and 64 years old, have a household income at or below 250% of the Federal Poverty Level, and either have no insurance or be underinsured. With the Federal Poverty Level being $14,580 for a single person in 2023, a woman making $36,450 or more would not be eligible for the program.

Even for those with health insurance, treatment for late-stage cervical cancers can exceed costs of $150,000.

In investigating why women in the Black Belt region had higher cervical cancer rates when compared to the rest of the state, Daniel said there were a number of obstacles ranging from lack of access to health care, lack of OBYGNs – with only four providers across the Black Belt’s 17 counties – transportation challenges, and a lack of information on sexual reproduction health.

“At the time, in 2018 Alabama had the highest rate of cervical cancer deaths in the entire country, and black women were over twice as likely to die of cervical cancer than white women, so we really wanted to understand what was driving the disparities,” Daniel said. 

“Cervical cancer is highly preventable, highly treatable, over 90% five-year survival rate if caught early, so we really wanted to understand why are black women in the Black Belt dying at such high rates.”

In addition to calling for increased funding to the state screening program, advocates called for the expansion of Medicaid, further support of community outreach programs, and to develop programs to address barriers to accessing health care services linked to the unavailability of public transportation.

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2023, around 240 women in Alabama will be diagnosed with cervical cancer. Additionally, an estimated 4,500 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, with 720 dying of the disease.

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