LOS ANGELES – When Stephanie Fajuri, 36, had an abnormal Pap smear a decade ago, her doctor advised her to come in for annual screenings to keep an eye on her health. She was diligent about doing so regularly — until she was confronted by a pandemic.
An appointment scheduled last summer was pushed to December, Fajuri said. By the time she finally saw a doctor, she had developed more abnormal cells and had to undergo a procedure to remove them from her cervix.
"Thankfully, I am vigilant about my health," she said, "but this is how women develop cervical cancer."
Like Fajuri, women across Southern California are reporting appointments delayed, exams canceled and screenings postponed because of the pandemic. Some are voluntarily opting out for fear of encountering the virus, while others have had their appointments canceled by healthcare providers rerouting resources to COVID-19 patients.
But with the outbreak in its second year, experts are sounding the alarm about the ramifications of letting women's wellness fall by the wayside.
The problem is significant. A study published by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that during Southern California's first stay-at-home order, cervical cancer screenings plummeted 80% among 1.5 million women in Kaiser Permanente's regional network.
The findings have "important public health implications," said Chun Chao, a research scientist at Kaiser Permanente Southern California. "Delayed or missed cancer screenings could lead to increased risk of cancer and more advanced disease when diagnosed."
Dr. Maureen Miller, an epidemic intelligence service officer at the CDC and one of the study's lead authors, said cervical cancer screening rates are generally the same year over year, so the change between 2019 and 2020 marked a "substantial difference."
"We're not only worried about cancers, we're worried about pre-cancers," Miller said. "You could potentially have a serious disease developing in your cervix that you might not be able to feel in your body…. It's really important."
Cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women. The rate dropped significantly when routine screening became more widespread, and it is now estimated that up to 93% of cervical cancers are preventable, according to the CDC.