Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death amongst women worldwide. Cervical cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths amongst women worldwide. Fortunately, in the U.S., early detection is possible with mammograms and Pap smears. However, there is a substantial difference between states on the percentage of women undertaking these screenings. Women ages 18-64 who report having a Pap smear within the past three years are as low as 64% in Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho, and as high as 80% in Connecticut. In Rhode Island, 81% of women over 40 report having had a mammogram in the last two years, but only 63% of Alaskan women report the same.
Along with two colleagues at Augusta University, Cathy Slade and Wendy Habegger, we were interested to know what may explain this variation. Unsurprisingly, we found that the number of primary care physicians per capita was positively associated with screenings. Also, the health uninsurance rate was negatively associated with screenings. More surprisingly, we found adherence to religion was also an important determinant of cancer screening for women and of similar magnitude to physicians and insurance. Adherence was measured by membership in a religious organization and included major religious groups such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
We do not investigate the mechanisms through which greater religious adherence is associated with greater cancer screening, but previous research suggests religions may promote better health behaviors and lifestyles. Religious groups may also provide greater social integration and support.
Our conclusion was that state departments of health may consider working with faith-based organizations to improve women’s health outcomes.