People Forget That This Form Of Cancer Is Sexually Transmitted

A cancer breakthrough and the heroes behind it get spotlight in new show

THE WASHINGTON POST – “The Cancer Detectives,” a new American Experience documentary on PBS, tracks the fascinating and surprisingly frustrating backstory of the Pap smear, a cervical cancer screening test that’s now routine but was once anything but.

The film takes viewers back to the days before Pap smears, a time when cervical cancer was rightfully feared by patients and doctors alike.

A century ago, cervical cancer was a major killer of women. Early detection was impossible, and sexual stigma and shame kept women from discussing it.

So it’s not surprising that when an immigrant physician from Greece, George Papanicolaou, nicknamed “Dr. Pap,” discovered a way to detect changes in cervical cells, his breakthrough was largely disregarded by the scientific community.

It would take a massive public relations war against the unspeakable cancer to make the Pap smear a routine part of cervical cancer screening — a war waged in part by Black OB/GYN Helen Dickens, Japanese American illustrator Hashime Murayama and a group of women committed to cancer prevention.

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The film documents the sometimes maddening hurdles they faced, from Murayama’s arrests for being an “enemy alien” during World War II to the racism and sexism that Dickens faced as she attempted to practice medicine and spread the news about cervical cancer screening.

Spoiler alert: They succeeded. Thanks in part to the Pap smear, cervical cancer incidence in the United States has fallen by more than 70 percent since the 1950s.

Luckily, knowing the end of the story doesn’t detract from the fascinating tale, which is rife with historical injustice. Social and scientific progress can be slow, but “The Cancer Detectives” recognizes the tireless efforts of a group of people whose work deserves to be remembered.

“American Experience: The Cancer Detectives” premieres on PBS stations on March 26 at 9 p.m. Eastern time and will stream on PBS.org …


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