As recently as the 1940s, cancer of the cervix — the small tube of tissue that connects the vagina and uterus — was a major cause of death among women of childbearing age in the United States. But the 1950s brought the Pap smear, a simple test in which cells from the cervix are examined under a microscope to detect any abnormalities. Abnormal cells can be removed so they will not develop into cancer. If they are already cancerous, catching them when the disease is in the early stages means a better chance for a cure.
Thanks to the Pap test, deaths from cervical cancer have fallen dramatically, from 35,000 per year in the 1950s to fewer than 4,000 per year today. Cervical cancer is one of only two cancers that can be prevented through early screening.
“When I was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1989, initially I wasn’t afraid,” said cervical cancer survivor Narseary Harris of Buffalo. “When I received the news, my husband, Vernal, and I were living in Rochester, N.Y., raising two young children who were struggling with sickle cell anemia. I wasn’t afraid, but I felt confused and very anxious, repeatedly asking God, ‘What is going to happen to my kids if something bad happens to me?’
Back in those days, no one talked about cancer — in our families, in our churches, or in our communities,” said Harris, who credits her gynecologist in Rochester with keeping her calm after her diagnosis and reassuring her that early detection with the Pap test meant her cancer was caught early enough to be treatable. Harris also credits the prayers of her husband, her mother, and her siblings with providing additional comfort and support.
Harris’ husband serves as pastor of Prince of Peace Temple Church of God in Christ on the East Side of Buffalo. As First Lady of the church, Harris works with her husband not just in ministering to hundreds of families but also in providing services to meet the needs of those who are experiencing hardship. She is also chair of the First Ladies of Western New York (FLOW), whose members represent several churches in Buffalo and Niagara Falls and who advocate for programs that could improve the health of minority and underserved women.
Over the past six years, FLOW has partnered with Roswell Park Cancer Institute’s Buffalo-Niagara Witness Program, which promotes the importance of early detection through stories told by survivors of breast and cervical cancer. Another Roswell Park-based effort, Esperanza y Vida (Hope and Life), is a bilingual program aimed at increasing breast and cervical cancer screening in Latinas in both urban and rural areas. Hosted in churches and local community settings, over the past eight years the two programs have reached hundreds of women in Western New York.
“Be proactive with your own health,” Harris advises. “Regular visits to your primary physician and early screening can help catch cancer at a stage when it can be cured. This is especially important if you have any risk factors for cancer. If science and medical breakthroughs can help save your life, you need to be aware of what they are and take advantage of them.”
For more information about cervical cancer or about the Buffalo-Niagara Witness Project or Esperanza y Vida, call the Cancer Information Program at 1-877-ASK-RPCI (1-877-275-7724) or e-mail ASKRPCI@RoswellPark.org.