Cervical Cancer Rates
Carcinoma of the cervix is among the most common malignant tumors affecting women worldwide. Of malignancies affecting the female genitals, it is this cancer that is the leading cause of death. For physicians, one of the most interesting facts about this disease is that it doesn't occur in celibate populations.
The idea that cancer of the cervix is non-existent in those who aren't sexually active was first observed by a Verona, Italy gynecologist named Rigonni-Stern during the 19th century. Rigonni-Stern served as a gynecologist in some Quebec nunneries over the course of several years. He realized that he'd never seen cancer of the cervix in any of the Quebec nuns.
The doctor analyzed death records for 13,000 nuns and found that 12 had died of uterine cancer. In the general population, there would have been 5-8 times the rate of cervical cancer. Instead, there were no cases whatsoever of cervical cancer among these nuns. This led to the first inklings that cervical cancer is linked to coitus and is transmitted in much the same way as venereal diseases. Of course, this in turn brought us to the 20th century discovery of the human Papillomavirus and its role in the development of cervical cancer.
Much later, Braithwaite published an observation in 1901 in The Lancet. Regarding his experience in treating cancer of the cervix during his work at the London Hospital and the Leeds General Infirmary, Braithwaite wrote that this cancer, "was seldom or never met with amongst the numerous Jewesses," treated at these institutions. This phenomenon has been repeatedly confirmed through the years and the low incidence of cervical cancer in Jewish women has intrigued many an investigator.
Studies conducted through the years prove only that the incidence is no greater in the three Jewish ethnic groups: the Mizrachi or Oriental population, the Sephardic population, and those of Ashkenazic descent. There was also no difference in the cervical cancer rates to distinguish Israeli women from their American Jewish counterparts. Experts have therefore posited that the low rate of this cancer in Jewish women may be due to religious traditions, specific risk factors, or genetics that might provide some kind of protection against the cancer.
In terms of religious traditions, there are two Jewish religious obligations that would seem to merit further investigation as a means of preventing cervical cancer. One is the practice of ritual circumcision of 8 day-old males. The other is the observance of the family purity laws which includes the abstention from sex a minimum of 12 days out of a woman's menstrual cycle: when she is actively bleeding and for a further 7 days after the bleeding has ceased.