“This is cancer prevention. This is the one cancer we do have a vaccine for.”
That is how Lauren Whiteside responded when asked about the importance of educating people on cervical cancer and the HPV vaccine. Currently, South Carolina has one of the highest rates of cervical cancer deaths in America. These rates would be different if more people received the HPV vaccination.
To this day, fifty percent of South Carolinian girls and twenty percent of South Carolinian boys ages 13-17 have not been vaccinated. Because of these alarming statistics, Whiteside has been championing cervical cancer education in South Carolina.
Whiteside began the South Carolina chapter of the National Cervical Cancer Coalition in January 2011. But the story that led her to where she is today is an incredible one. Before starting the South Carolina chapter of the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, Whiteside had a couple of operations to remove precancerous lesions. This sparked her interest in learning more about cervical cancer. While doing some research online, she came across the National Cervical Cancer Coalition’s website. She instantly felt the urge to contribute to the organization by volunteering her time, but soon found out that South Carolina did not have a National Cervical Cancer chapter. So she took the plunge and began a chapter herself. She has been advocating for cervical cancer and HPV education ever since.
Since she created the South Carolina chapter in January of 2011, she has been focused on educating others about cervical cancer prevention. One of the things that motivates her to do the work she does is the prevalence of inaccurate information surrounding the HPV vaccine. Unfortunately, there are many people in the state of South Carolina who do not have correct information on the HPV vaccine and cervical cancer.
“One year I was on a college campus and I was there doing a health fair and one college freshman told me that her parents didn't want her to get the HPV vaccine because she thought that it caused cancer. The inaccurate information I have encountered here in South Carolina really makes me want to push forward and continue the efforts we've been making in the past couple of years."
Ever since the South Carolina chapter’s creation, Whiteside has dedicated her time to educate others about HPV and the vaccine in hopes of creating an environment where people can make informed decisions based on facts rather than misconceptions. Every person who receives accurate information and makes the informed decision of receiving the vaccination or having their child vaccinated, is one more person who will not have to endure cervical cancer.
There is a stigma associated with cervical cancer prevention that is not associated with other forms of cancer. Whiteside mentioned that it is more difficult in the South for advocacy work of this nature because many people are not comfortable talking about HPV and cervical cancer, but she has not let that deter her efforts. After speaking on a panel, a mother went up to her and told her “After hearing you speak, I’ve changed my mind about the HPV vaccine.” For Whiteside, success is defined as a step in the right direction, whether it be a small one or a big one.
One big success Whiteside has been working towards for the past few years is the passage of the Cervical Cancer Prevention Act. The act is a crucial piece of legislation that will allow DHEC to offer the cervical cancer vaccine to all South Carolina students entering the seventh grade. The act will also raise awareness of the HPV vaccine as well as increase accessibility to vaccination. Governor Haley has promised that if the legislation makes its way to her desk, she will sign it. The act’s passage would mean an increase in vaccinations that will in turn decrease the amount of cervical cancer and HPV cases.
The passage of the Cervical Cancer Prevention Act is one way a positive change can be made but another way great changes can be made by becoming an advocate. Anyone can make positive changes in their community by becoming aware of the issues and raising their voices. Tell Them is an organization that educates South Carolina citizens on reproductive health policy by providing medically accurate information and teaching citizens how to make their voices heard by South Carolina lawmakers.
When asked how others could become powerful advocates, Whiteside stated “Tell Them makes it really easy for people to get involved[with legislative efforts] and to access the [tools needed] for correct statistics on things that some people may not be familiar with.” One thing we can learn from Lauren Whiteside is that with passion, anyone can make a positive impact on their community.