Cancer is not often associated with young adults. Twenty–somethings are assumed to be at the peak of physical health, immune to the diseases and ailments that we expect to come with age.
Young women in particular, however, are more susceptible to certain cancers, especially cervical cancer, than we would like to believe.
The American Cancer Society recently conducted a study linking a rise in early detection of cervical cancer in young women to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. This development indicates a rise in fertility rates and a decrease in mortality.
Since the increased use of the Pap test, which first became common about 30 years ago, the cervical cancer death rate has decreased by approximately 50 percent, a statistic that only shows the progress science has made in female healthcare.
A cervical cancer screening is typically part of a Pap test. The screening can detect potentially harmful changes in the cervix before cancer develops, allowing for treatment in the disease’s earliest stage.
In addition to the Pap test, HPV testing can be used to detect the presence of cancerous or pre–cancerous lesions. Ideally, women should have both tests performed on a regular basis.
Cervical cancer, unlike most types of cancer, commonly affects young women. Although women of all ages can be diagnosed with cervical cancer, older women are statistically more likely to have testing done regularly, and therefore treat the disease in its early stages, which involves less complex procedures.
Without health insurance, however, many young women are unable to afford regular Pap tests, and therefore are often unaware of the existence of cancerous cells in the uterus.
The Affordable Care Act, implemented on March 23, 2010, allows children to be covered by their parents’ health insurance until age 26.
Approximately four million young adults have gained insurance benefits through Obamacare, which has been associated with a variety of improved health outcomes for both men and women.
This aspect of Obamacare is especially crucial for young women; there has been a substantial increase in the number of women under 26 who have received a diagnosis of early-stage cervical cancer since 2010, while the number of young women diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer has dropped proportionately.
Under Obamacare, routine Pap tests are covered by most health insurance plans, ensuring that the majority of women in the United States are able to get tested at the recommended frequency.
Early detection of cervical cancer is linked to a higher survival rate, and in the case of survival, women are much more likely to retain their fertility during treatment when the disease is treated early on.
In its early stages, cervical cancer can be treated with relatively small surgeries that leave the uterus intact. Treatment of advanced cancer, however, often means undergoing a hysterectomy, radiation therapy or chemotherapy, procedures that more often than not lead to infertility.
Women should ideally begin cervical cancer screenings at age 21, and Obamacare makes this an option for more women.
When the spread of cancerous cells in the uterus is detected early on, women have more choices in terms of treatment, and have a better option overall of long–term healthcare.
Although there is no way to definitively prove that the Affordable Care Act is a direct cause of the increase in early detection of cervical cancer, there is undeniably a correlation. A long–term study is necessary to determine what this means for cancer care and outcomes.
The American Cancer Society, however, has confirmed that the past few years have seen upward trends in early detection. Researchers compared cancer diagnoses of women between the ages of 21 and 25 to those of women ages 26 to 34, both before and after the enactment of Obamacare, and found that diagnosis rates rose significantly in the 21–25 age range, but remained steady in the 26–34 group.
Across all ages, the proportion of late–stage cervical cancer to early–stage cervical cancer in American women has shifted in a positive direction.
Between 2007 and 2009, early–stage tumors accounted for 68 percent of all cervical cancers. By 2011, this percentage grew to 84. Over the same time span, the percentage of women eligible for less aggressive treatments rose from 26 to 39.
Those with insurance are, as would be expected, more likely to take advantage of preventative health services beyond cervical cancer screenings.
Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act in March 2010, Americans under 26 have increasingly utilized a variety of medical resources. More young people have begun to take advantage of mental health services, which were previously unattainable to much of the population.
A greater proportion of young women are able to afford effective methods of birth control and have more options at their disposal.
The studies conducted by the American Cancer Society do not account for factors such as race, though. In the United States, Latina women are most likely to develop cervical cancer, followed by black women, then Pacific Islanders and Asian women, then white women. It has yet to be determined whether the Affordable Care Act has an effect on this ratio.
The studies also do not acknowledge other outside components that have contributed to a steady increase in early cervical cancer diagnoses over the past few decades.
While Obamacare has certainly had a positive effect, it is not clear at this point how much credit it should receive.
Although a greater variety of health services are now available to women, efforts to extend their accessibility are futile without public awareness of their presence and purpose.
Public consciousness of cervical cancer and the cruciality of testing for it regularly beginning at a relatively young age is still limited.
Despite the discrepancies in recent information surrounding the effect of the Affordable Care Act on cervical cancer diagnosis, there is no doubt that, in the short run at least, the legislation is beneficial to young adults, and particularly young women.
—Emma Jones ’19 is a student at Vassar College.