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After losing her grandmother to cervical cancer, ‘Black-ish’ star Marsai Martin says raising awareness of all gyn cancers and improving prevention became a personal goal. John Lamparski/Getty Images
  • Black-ish actor Marsai Martin is honoring her grandma by spreading awareness about gynecologic cancers.
  • Martin teamed up with the Move4Her initiative to encourage women across the country to help raise funds, increase awareness, and drive early diagnosis of the five gyn cancers– cervical, ovarian, uterine/endometrial, vaginal, and vulvar.
  • Every five minutes, a woman is diagnosed with one of the five gyn cancers.

Marsai Martin is best known for her breakthrough role as Diane Johnson on the hit sitcom Black-ish, which centered around the lives of an upper-middle-class family. Offscreen, family is a big part of Martin’s life, too.

She grew up living with her dad, mom, and both grandmothers.

“I grew up in a very feminine household…[my mom’s mom] was my best friend and I would most likely be with her almost every day,” Martin told Healthline.

When she was 12 years old, her grandma passed away after battling cervical cancer for more than 35 years. The loss left Martin with a heightened awareness about her own health at a time when her body was beginning to experience hormonal and developmental changes.

“I just overall decided to pay attention to my body at a pretty young age,” she said.

Around that time, she also engaged in conversations with her mom, “talking about different cancers and knowing that it is in our genetics and it is a thing we most likely need to be aware of to prevent from knowing late or finding something in a surprise way,” said Martin.

Now that she is 18 years old, she decided it’s time to spread awareness to others about the five gyn cancers, which include cervical, ovarian, uterine/endometrial, vaginal, and vulvar. As a celebrity ambassador for the Move4Her initiative, she hopes to encourage people across the country to help raise funds, increase awareness, and drive early diagnosis of gyn cancers.

The fact is every five minutes, a woman is diagnosed with one of the five gyn cancers, according to the Foundation for Women’s Cancer (FWC), which states that early diagnosis is critical to outcomes.

“I’m very grateful to be a part of something like this that is very powerful and impactful and that can touch so many people around the world, especially women,” said Martin. “[It] is a way for me to honor my grandmother and also to inform young people about the five different gyn cancers and how to detect them and prevent them early.”

Marsai Martin and her grandmother. Share on Pinterest
Marsai Martin (right) with her grandmother (left). Image Provided by Marsai Martin

Not all five gynecologic cancers are detectable through routine exams with a gynecologist.

“This is why it is so important to know the signs and symptoms of gyn cancers and to speak to a doctor if something feels wrong,” Dr. Ginger Gardner, chair of the FWC and vice chair of hospital operations at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, told Healthline.

Abnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain or pressure, and change in bowel or bladder function can be symptoms of gynecologic cancers.

Gardner noted that a pelvic exam is effective at checking for vulvar cancer and that Pap smears screen for cancers and precancers of the cervix and vagina. However, a Pap smear does not reliably screen for endometrial/uterine or ovarian cancer.

“For gynecologic cancers, it is important to understand what might put you at risk for these diseases, and what symptoms you need to be aware of. Getting information about the 5 gyn cancers is important, so you can prevent disease or find it early when the treatments are most effective,” said Gardner.

To learn specifics of each condition, visit MoveTheMessage.

Dr. Adi Katz, director of gynecology at Lenox Hill Hospital, said a good place to start is ensuring you have annual visits with your doctor.

“Going for exam once a year screens more than just a Pap smear,” Katz told Healthline. “Most cancers are treatable if detected early.”

While ovarian cancer is the leading cause of death among gynecologic cancers and the fifth leading cause of cancer death in women, only 15% of all ovarian cancer cases are detected at the earliest, most curable stage.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer include:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
  • Urinary symptoms — urgency or frequency
  • Irregular bleeding

“An individual knows their body best — so listen to your body and if you feel like something isn’t normal, talk to your doctor about it and ask if it could be a type of gynecologic cancer,” said Gardner.

Cervical cancer is usually related to a virus called human papilloma virus (HPV), which 80% of women will carry at some point in their life. HPV can linger in the gynecologic track over a lifetime without any symptoms and cervical cancer can develop slowly.

This is why it’s crucial to have a Pap test, Gardner stressed.

“People usually do not have any signs until the cells turn into cancer and invade the deepest parts of the cervix or other pelvic organs,” she said.

When cancer is present, symptoms might include:

  • Vaginal discharge
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Vaginal odor
  • Pain

The good news is that almost all cervical cancer is preventable.

“There is a vaccine available for all from age 9 to 45 that can help you build immunity against the nine most common types of HPV variants,” said Katz. “Pap smears detect abnormal cells on the cervix well before they are cancer and can allow for intervention.”

Being aware of preventive measures is what Martin mostly wants to spread awareness about.

“I feel like the biggest fear that I would have [for myself and] other people in my age group and even older is to know something that I could have prevented a long time ago or I least knew about and worked it out in a way that I was more aware of at an earlier age,” she said.

She also hopes to encourage Black women to take charge of their gynecologic health. When it comes to cervical cancer, Black women are more likely to have a late-stage diagnosis and are almost one-and-a-half times more likely to die of cervical cancer than white women, according to a joint report by the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice and Human Rights Watch.

“[Seeing] it firsthand and watching my grandmother go through these things, of course, makes me more aware as I grow up, and with my kids and my kids’ kids [someday], you want them to know these things,” said Martin.

She added that supporting initiatives that promote mental health and health is her priority as a celebrity.

“[Making] sure I partner up with people who also stand for the same thing or are actually making a difference in helping people with it as well, is my main goal,” she said.