Team Maureen fights cervical cancer
Team Maureen was forged in grief and began with a bike ride.
Fourteen years ago, Maureen Russo died at 37 from cervical cancer. So, her younger sister, Eileen Duffey-Lind of Falmouth, a pediatric oncology nurse, and other family members organized
Team Maureen for the Pan-Mass Challenge, the biking event that raises money for cancer research.
But soon after, the Food and Drug Administration approved
Gardasil as a vaccine to protect against HPV, or human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical and other types of cancer. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control, yet most of those infected with it have no symptoms or know they are carriers. But the virus can be deadly, causing not only genital warts but cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus and oropharynx (back of the throat).
At one time, cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States, according to the CDC., although the number of cases and deaths have decreased significantly as the result of more women getting regular
Pap tests. That said, more than were reported in the United States in 2017, and the CDC estimates about 12,000 cases of cervical cancer 3,500 new cases of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers are diagnosed in women and about 16,200 are diagnosed in men each year in the United States.
With the release of the vaccine, Team Maureen changed gears from research to prevention.
“Basically, our motive was, if we could just prevent it, it would be so much better and save families so much heartache,” said Kelly Welch, executive director and the Falmouth-based organization’s only paid staff.
One of their efforts is to encourage vaccination. The CDC recommends two doses of the HPV vaccine for children up to age 15. Those who start after 15 need three doses over six months. The CDC says that because of the vaccine, infections of the HPV that causes cancers and genital warts have dropped 86 percent among teen girls and 71 percent among young adult women. The percentage of cervical precancers caused by HPV types linked to cervical cancer has dropped by 40 percent in vaccinated women.
Spreading the Word
Team Maureen is now focused solely on spreading the word about the connection between HPV and cancer and the importance of prevention and early detection through screening.
“In a normal year, we do tons of community education,” Welch said. “We go to community health events, fairs, pride events, the Falmouth road race -- any place you can interact with larger numbers of people.”
This not being a “normal” year, Team Maureen has developed materials to be distributed to students and offered online training for doctors, nurses, physician assistants, dentists and hygienists. Welch said.
“That’s a continuing piece of our work that hasn’t changed over COVID,” she said. “We just do it via Zoom instead of in person.”
All of these programs are supported by donations and grants, including this year’s $16,913 Community Benefits initiative grant from Cape Cod Healthcare (CCHC). In 2021, CCHC will award $299,608 in grants to groups working to improve the health and wellness of the Cape Cod community.
The CCHC grant will help support a new Team Maureen initiative called “Getting Back to Cancer Prevention,” Welch said. The goal is to remind people about the danger of missing regular screenings such as Pap and HPV tests, and dental check-ups during the pandemic.
Team Maureen will use social media, TV and print content to get people back into the habit of vaccinations, annual doctor's visits, dental appointments and cervical cancer screenings, Welch said.
“Whether people realize it or not, when they go to the dentist and the dentist feels their throat and wraps their tongue in gauze and yanks it around their mouth, they’re looking for those cancers,” Welch said. “We know that oropharyngeal cancer is skyrocketing and almost all of it is HPV.
“We really don’t want people to be putting those off.”