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Professor’s message and mission: ‘No woman should die of cervical cancer’

South Carolina Witness Project trainees celebrate the completion of their training with Rachel Mayo (front row, second from left). The woman are among 400 in the Palmetto State who are sharing information about cervical and breast cancer detection and survival.

South Carolina Witness Project trainees celebrate the completion of their training with Rachel Mayo (front row, second from left). The woman are among 400 in the Palmetto State who are sharing information about cervical and breast cancer detection and survival.
Image Credit: Contributed

No woman should die of cervical cancer.

That is the message Clemson University public health sciences professor Rachel Mayo wants to relay to women throughout the Palmetto State.

Caused primarily by the human papillomavirus (HPV), cervical cancer can largely be prevented with a HPV vaccine available to females – and males – in their preteen, teen and early adult years.

Cervical cancer is also among the easiest types of cancer to prevent and detect early, as Pap tests – part of women’s checkups or gynecological exams – can detect abnormal cervical cells before they become cancerous and can find cancer in early, more treatable stages.

But despite widespread prevention measures, there were 12,340 new cases of cervical cancer and 4,030 cervical cancer-related deaths in the U.S. in 2013, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The organization Cervical Cancer-Free South Carolina reports that the Palmetto State ranks seventh in cervical cancer deaths in the U.S., and an estimated 190 women will be diagnosed and 75 will die from the disease this year.

And the news for African-American women is particularly troubling.

Rates of cervical cancer in the U.S. are 45 percent higher among African-American women than Caucasian women, and African-American women are twice as likely to die from the disease, says the NCI. The disparities in incidence and death rates are comparable in South Carolina.

That’s why Mayo – along with partners across the state – have embarked on the South Carolina Witness Project, a community-based cervical and breast cancer education program specifically targeted to African-American women.

Started in 2008, the program trains African-American women to volunteer in their communities as lay health advisors. In this role, they organize and publicize educational programs, network, give facts about cervical and breast cancer, answer questions about screenings, and facilitate connections to health services provided by collaborating agencies, Mayo said.

The program also trains African-American women who are cervical or breast cancer survivors to become witness role models. “They speak to local groups about their experiences and serve as proof that cancer is not a death sentence,” Mayo says.

Since the program began, Mayo and other members of the project’s advisory team have trained more than 400 witness role models and lay health advisors who have embarked on over 300 presentations, reaching nearly 9,000 African-American women. Of them, 769 were referred for cancer screening and follow-up care, Mayo said.

“Our goals have been to raise awareness and encourage women to take action to preserve their health,” Mayo said. “Women make most of the healthcare decisions in their families, but also put themselves last on the list. We are seeking to change that.”

The South Carolina Witness Project is part of a national Witness Project started in 1990 by Deborah Erwin, a medical anthropologist at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y.

The national project has been successfully implemented in South Carolina with a collaboration that includes previous funders – the South Carolina Cancer Disparities Community Network at the University of South Carolina, the Lowcountry Affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, and the South Carolina Cancer Alliance – and collaborators such as the State Baptist Young Women’s Auxiliary Health Ministry, Clemson University, the Best Chance Network, the American Cancer Society, and the Second Chance Cancer Support Group.

Mayo is part of the project’s advisory team that conducts trainings for lay health advisors and witness role models across the state. Other team members are Jacqueline Talley, a minister and volunteer from Spartanburg, S.C.; Vonda Evans of the Best Chance Network/American Cancer Society; Kimberly Comer of the South Carolina Cancer Disparities Community Network; Cherry Seabrook of the Second Chance Cancer Support Group; and John Ureda, a consultant with Insights Consulting and Research Group in Columbia, S.C.

The advisory team is currently in the planning stages of a Witness 2.0 project that will focus even more on cervical cancer and HPV education as well as the role of nutrition and physical activity in the prevention of all cancers, Mayo said.



, College of Health, Education and Human Development
January 24, 2014

Academics, Cancer, Determined Spirit, Faculty, Outreach, Pubic Health Sciences