When I first went to college at the University of Kentucky, I couldn’t believe how much I had to learn — and fast. Suddenly, I was surrounded by new people, with a schedule full of classes and navigating it all away from home for the first time. I wished that I could call my grandmother, who was my favorite person in the whole world, to tell her about my experience and get her advice on how to handle my new life. She had been like another mother to me growing up — always there for me, no matter what. But chatting with her would not be possible. Sadly, she passed away from cervical cancer before I graduated from high school.
I learned so much during my first year at UK, but one thing I wasn’t told was something that I wish I had learned sooner: the disease that took my grandmother’s life is actually preventable. That’s right — with a combination of tools, it’s possible to prevent cervical cancer before it even develops, and it’s important to get started before you even graduate college.
I’ve been surprised by how many Gen Z women and people with a cervix have no idea there are actions they can take to protect themselves from this cancer. In honor of January’s Cervical Health Awareness Month, here’s the information I believe all college-age women should not just have, but act on.
Get Vaccinated For HPV
The HPV vaccine is the only vaccine that can actually prevent cancer. That’s why the National Cervical Cancer Coalition (NCCC) recommends every person 26 years of age and younger get vaccinated if they aren’t fully vaccinated already. If you’re unsure of your vaccination status, ask your health care provider.
Get Tested For Cervical Cancer
Current NCCC guidelines recommend women — or anyone with a cervix — should be tested regularly for cervical cancer starting at age 21. Regular testing can identify those at risk, so they can be evaluated and treated early if needed. (What “regular” means depends on your medical history, which is why it’s important to talk with your health care provider to see what screenings are right for you.) While the American Cancer Society says it’s rare to get cervical cancer before 20, now’s the time to get into healthy, life-affirming habits that can set you up well in the long run.
Once you get your test results, take action. Be sure you understand the recommended next steps, and if you’re looking for support, know that there are resources, like the NCCC, available within the cervical cancer community. Knowledge is power — so harness yours!
That final point is one I’m super passionate about, because it’s a big part of my personal story. When my grandmother received her abnormal test results, she was busy helping her children — my mother and her three sisters — and grandchildren, as well as caring for her own mom. She should have followed up with her health care professional, but she put it off because she was too busy taking care of me and all of the important people around her.
I remember all too well how busy I was as a young college student and after graduation. Between classes, work, and a social life, I often let things slip — including regular medical care. If people take one thing from my grandmother’s story, I hope it’s that prevention is possible, but only if you’re proactive to safeguard your own health. You can start now by making sure you’re up to date with your routine exams and having open conversations with your health care provider about what your results mean — about cervical cancer and any other aspects of your sexual health. Healthy habits like these ensure you’re making your health a priority.
This disease is preventable, but you must start with yourself. I am proud to be vaccinated and to have recently been screened. I also followed up with my health care provider to make sure I understood my results. Having confidence in my health status gives me peace of mind and allows me to focus on what I love.
I have met so many inspiring young women around this country — at school, in my professional life, and in my role as Miss USA — and I feel confident that we, as Gen Zers, will be the ones to end cervical cancer. For ourselves and for the ones we love.