Ida, a resident of Donna, is living with the human papillomavirus (HPV), an infection that can lead to cervical cancer. She has had cervical cysts removed in the past and doctors have told her she needs a Pap test every six months. Sadly, Ida isn’t able to get the test because it’s simply too expensive. “Either I pay $60 or I buy food for my children. … It’s one or the other, but not both,” she said. “Being unable to see a doctor has me worried sick. I’m so afraid of the virus coming back.”
Ida’s fear is warranted. Latinas have among the highest rates of cervical cancer and death from the disease. In Texas, cervical cancer is 19 percent higher than the national average and it is even higher for Latinas. Texas Latinas are also nearly 36 percent more likely to die of cervical cancer than Anglo Texans, and 26 percent more likely to die of cervical cancer compared to Latinas nationally. And women living in counties like Hidalgo County that border Mexico are 31 percent more likely to die of cervical cancer compared to women living in non-border counties.
What’s heartbreaking and infuriating about these statistics is that cervical cancer and HPV infection are highly preventable and treatable if addressed early. But formidable barriers too often prevent Latinas and immigrant women in Texas from accessing the care they need to stay healthy. These barriers include poverty, lack of insurance, lack of transportation, lack of culturally and linguistically competent care and fear of provider bias and discrimination due to primary language, immigration status, race/ethnicity and sexual identity.
Recently, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) in partnership with the Center for Reproductive Rights released a joint report, Nuestra Voz, Nuestra Salud, Nuestro Texas, revealing the tragic consequences suffered by Texas women due to a series of drastic state budget cuts to family planning and health centers. The report showed that far too many Latinas in Texas are going without life-saving preventive care — including cancer screenings — because of high costs, distance and other barriers.
The devastating impacts of these state restrictions — as well as inhumane federal immigration policies — on the health of Latinas and immigrant women in the Valley are clear violations of women’s fundamental human rights. We cannot continue to allow Latinas across Texas to die from an entirely preventable disease. As Latinas, we know this must change and we’re working together to make sure cervical cancer claims fewer lives of our mothers, sisters and daughters.
Earlier this month, health promotoras and community activists with our organization held a march and health fair in Mission to promote cervical cancer prevention and inclusive immigration reform. On Jan. 24, we will come together again in Brownsville to continue to promote cervical cancer awareness because we know our strength lies in our unity. We are committed to lifting Latinas’ voices and letting lawmakers know we need greater access to health services to prevent and detect cervical cancer, as well as comprehensive immigration reform that considers the needs of immigrant women and their families.
While Latinas and immigrant women are the most personally affected by cervical cancer, the disease affects entire communities and this state as a whole. Latinas and immigrant women often work as the primary caregivers and increasingly more are their family’s primary breadwinners. We can’t stop fighting and working to ensure that Latinas get the health care they need.
As a health promotora and community organizer for NLIRH’s Texas Latina Advocacy Network, I have seen firsthand the needs of Latina and immigrant women in the state. I have been moved again and again by the way women in our communities are coming together to educate themselves and one another and voice their needs and desires for better reproductive health care. When we come together to organize and fight for the resources and support we need, we can begin to address — and undo — the epidemic of cervical cancer and save Latinas’ lives.
Lucy Felix is Texas Latina Advocacy Network field coordinator at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. This column was written exclusively for The Monitor.