Planned Parenthood: On the Front Lines of Fighting Cancer

Sharmila Makhija, MD MBA
Department Chair, Obstetrics & Gynecology and Women’s Health
Professor, Gynecologic Oncology
Montefiore Health System, Albert Einstein College of Medicine


“If Planned Parenthood is defunded nationally, far more women will be forced to give up the timely care they need to detect and prevent cancer. It’s time to rethink the definition of what Planned Parenthood does. . .”

When you hear the words “Planned Parenthood,” it’s likely the first thing that comes to mind is family planning. This now-iconic institution remains a vital safe space for women who want accessible birth control and reproductive healthcare. What you may not know is that Planned Parenthood health centers are also on the front lines fighting a variety of cancers, providing critical screenings including everything from breast and pelvic exams to pap smears. In fact, since it was founded 100 years ago, Planned Parenthood has become an integral part of our overburdened healthcare system, offering crucial, life-saving screening exams for women.

As an oncologist, I know the difference Planned Parenthood screenings can make. They help doctors like me save lives.

For more than sixteen years, I’ve led teams that provide comprehensive care for women diagnosed with pelvic cancers. When found at advanced stages, cancer treatment is debilitating and expensive. It can involve extensive surgeries, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. There is no question that women diagnosed and treated at an early stage have better outcomes. They are able to avoid invasive treatments and can continue leading full lives. The continued productivity and quality of life of each woman who survives cancer is an immeasurable benefit to society.

Despite advances in women’s health care, the U.S. medical system struggles to meet basic needs. Federally funded community health centers are over-extended and offer limited access. More than half of Planned Parenthood’s 650 health centers are in communities facing severe medical-provider shortages, where routine screenings can be difficult to obtain.

Planned Parenthood fills this void for women in need:

  • 75% percent of Planned Parenthood patients have incomes at or below 150% of the federal poverty level.
  • The organization provides 600,000 cancer screenings each year.
  • As a result, 70,000 women are diagnosed with precancerous lesions or early-stage breast or cervical cancer.
  • Planned Parenthood expedites referrals to the specialists who deliver timely treatment.

This strategy saves lives!

Cancer prevention strategies are central to Planned Parenthood’s mission. They offer programs designed to prevent both ovarian and cervical cancer by providing contraceptive counseling and vaccinations.

Ovarian cancer is one of the most difficult to diagnose early, so prevention is critical. The American Cancer Society supports the use of oral contraceptives to lower the risk of developing this deadly disease: a strategy that is known to cut ovarian cancer risk by 50%.

In addition, certain persistent strains of human papillomavirus, or HPV, cause 70% of cervical cancers. Since the prevalence of HPV infection peaks for women in their early 20s, vaccination at an early age can offer protection. Planned Parenthood has made awareness and accessibility of this vaccine a priority.

In all, one in five women has depended on a Planned Parenthood center for care in her lifetime: our neighbors, colleagues, friends, girlfriends, granddaughters, mothers, daughters, nieces and spouses. We don’t need to imagine what happens to basic women’s healthcare if Planned Parenthood is defunded, we can simply look at the states that have done it.

The results are drastic.

Wisconsin and Texas both closed Planned Parenthood centers. Researchers found that women there received fewer breast and cervical cancer screenings because they were forced to travel more than 100 miles to the nearest health center. After Kansas defunded Planned Parenthood, the number of women seeking care decreased by 14,000.

If Planned Parenthood is defunded nationally, far more women will be forced to give up the timely care they need to detect and prevent cancer. It’s time to rethink the definition of what Planned Parenthood does and fight for its survival on behalf of women everywhere.

A woman’s life might literally depend on it.

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  • Cecilia Ford October 30, 2017 at 8:40 am

    Thank you for this article. In some areas, such as rural Vermont, Planned Parenthood has been women’s only option for GYN health and losing access will have tragic consequences.