When I think of Argentina, I too, think of Eva Peron. But there’s no musical accompaniment. Just sorrow.
Because I can never think about Eva Peron without thinking about cervical cancer, Pap smears and HPV. And the tragedy that was Eva’s death, and the deaths of so many women from cervical cancer.
Eva died from cervical cancer in 1952 at the young age of 33 years. Although George Papanicolaou invented the Pap smear in 1942, this life-saving test was not widely used in Argentina until the 1960’s. Thus, Eva’s cancer was at an advanced stage when it was diagnosed after she began having vaginal hemorrhage. She received radiation treatment to control the bleeding, probably right around the time of that photo up there, and then a radical hysterectomy in November 1951. Despite treatment, the cancer progressed rapidly and she succumbed to it just 8 months later.
Don’t be surprised if you did not know that Eva had cervical cancer
She herself never knew. Her diagnosis was kept from her at her family’s request, and the public never told, even after her death. The subterfuge was so extensive that when they brought in an oncologic surgeon from Memorial Sloan Kettering to perform a radical hysterectomy, he never met his famous patient until she was asleep under anesthesia, and Eva never knew that her surgeon was anyone other than her own doctor. It’s an amazing story of paternalism and politics.
Eva’s husband, dictator Juan Peron, also lost his first wife to cervical cancer at 28 years.
Did Peron carry a particularly aggressive strain of HPV, the virus that we now know causes cervical cancer, and unknowingly transmit the infection to both his wives? Or did Evita contract HPV elsewhere, having been sexually active with multiple partners from the young age of 15? We will never know for sure.
What we do know today is that Evita’s death due to cervical cancer would likely never have happened if she had had a Pap smear. This simple test, in which cells from the cervix are collected with a brush and examined microscopically for abnormalities, can detect precancerous changes up to 10 years before cervical cancer develops. Ten years during which developing lesions can be treated before they become cancerous.
This week is the 125th anniversary of the birthday of George Papanicolaou, the inventor of the Pap smear.
Happy Birthday, George. If there is a heaven, you are surely in it. And thank you for your wonderful Pap smear – one of the most effective cancer screening tests ever created
If only Evita had had one.
For more reading about Evita see –
- B Lerner. The illness and death of Eva Perón: cancer, politics, and secrecy.
- Famous Patients, Famous Operations, Part 6 – The case of the Politician’s Wife (requires Medscape login)
- Evita’s Cancer by Josh Fishman
For more information about cervical cancer, pap smears and HPV see these sites –
- National Cancer Institute
- ASCCP – Great info for both patients and professionals
- American Cancer Society
- Medline Plus on cervical ca