The rate of women who die of cervical cancer in Iberia, St. Landry and Lafayette parishes outpaces the state average and signals the need for more education about a disease that can be prevented through vaccination or identified early through routine screenings, say local health advocates.

Louisiana has the fourth highest rate of cervical cancer in the country with 3.1 deaths per 100,000 women, based on 2007-2011 data from the Louisiana Tumor Registry. The cervical cancer mortality rate for women in Iberia Parish is 5.2, St. Landry is 4.2 and Lafayette is 3.2.

The data was released Tuesday by the Louisiana Comprehensive Cancer Control Program, a program of the LSU Health Sciences Center School of Public Health.

“It is very shocking that we have such high mortality rates, and we want to change that,” said Jeanne Solis, regional coordinator of the cancer control program. “We’d like to prevent the incidences, number one. But by catching something early, we can prevent death from cervical cancer. It is treatable.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health organizations advise a Pap test to screen for cervical cancer once every three years — a change from previous guidelines that advised annual Pap tests. The primary cause of cervical cancer is the Human papillomavirus, or HPV. The CDC recommends HPV vaccines for children ages 11 to 12. A separate HPV test can detect the virus.

Free screenings are available to underinsured or uninsured women through the Louisiana Breast and Cervical Health Program, which is funded by the CDC. Through the program, women ages 21 to 64 who make less than $23,340 a year as a single person or less than $47,700 for a family of four are eligible. In the Lafayette area, women who qualify may receive free Pap exams at Louisiana Oncology Associates, 4809 Ambassador Caffery Parkway, (337) 235-7898, and University Hospital and Clinics, 2390 Congress St., (337) 261-4838.

The screening program also provides follow-up care if a woman is diagnosed with cancer, Solis said.

Donna Fontenot was diagnosed with cervical cancer in November 2003 and is now cancer-free.

“Early detection is the best thing,” said Fontenot, who now works as a services coordinator at the Miles Perret Cancer Services Center, where she helps connect cancer patients and their families to resources they may need.

“The bad thing about cancer, especially cervical, is that if you don’t have any pains, if you don’t have any visual problems that crop up, or you’re not sick from it — you don’t think you have cancer,” she said. “Boy, was I fooled.”

Fontenot had put off a doctor’s appointment because of changing insurance plans and her doctors falling out of covered networks.

“No one wants to think they have cancer. I thought I was going through menopause,” she said.

“By the time you can get in to see an OB/GYN, they’re no longer on your insurance,” she said. “You keep putting it off because it takes six months to a year to see one. … I was pushy enough where I was able to get in and see a doctor in town.”

The cancer had spread beyond her cervix, and she started chemotherapy and radiation. In 2005, doctors detected that the cancer had spread to her bones. After several years of treatment, she’s now cancer-free.

“When I was diagnosed, I was 43. At that age, we don’t think about cancer. We’re invincible,” Fontenot said.

Solis said there are opportunities for women to access free screenings and through the Affordable Care Act, the cervical cancer Pap test screenings are covered by all insurance plans.

“Here in Acadiana, we have opportunities,” Solis said. “We need to take advantage of it and put it on the calendar. As women, we get so busy taking care of everyone else, we sometimes don’t take care of ourselves like we should. Even though we know we need to get Pap tests, access is also an issue. Hopefully, with the new Affordable Care Act opportunities, more women will get screened.”

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.