Cervical Cancer

General Information | Treatment Options | Screening | Prevention
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Prevention
  • About
  • Risk Factors

Doctors cannot always explain why one person gets cancer and another doesn't. However, scientists have studied general patterns of cancer in the population to learn what things around us and what things we do in our lives may increase our chance of developing cancer.

Anything that increases a person's chance of developing a disease is called a risk factor; anything that decreases a person's chance of developing a disease is called a protective factor. Some of the risk factors for cancer can be avoided, but many cannot. For example, although you can choose to quit smoking, you cannot choose which genes you have inherited from your parents. Both smoking and inheriting specific genes could be considered risk factors for certain kinds of cancer, but only smoking can be avoided. Prevention means avoiding the risk factors and increasing the protective factors that can be controlled so that the chance of developing cancer decreases.

Although many risk factors can be avoided, it is important to keep in mind that avoiding risk factors does not guarantee that you will not get cancer. Also, most people with a particular risk factor for cancer do not actually get the disease. Some people are more sensitive than others are to factors that can cause cancer. Talk to your doctor about methods of preventing cancer that might be effective for you.

Purposes of this summary

The purposes of this summary on cervical cancer prevention are to

  • Give information on cervical cancer and how often it occurs.
  • Describe cervical cancer prevention methods.
  • Give current facts about which people or groups of people would most likely be helped by following cervical cancer prevention methods.

You can talk to your doctor or health care professional about cancer prevention methods and whether they would be likely to help you.

Cervical Cancer Prevention

The uterine cervix is the lower, narrow part of the uterus (womb) that connects the uterus with the vagina. It is part of the female reproductive system.

Cervical cancer usually develops slowly over time. Before cancer appears in the cervix, the cells of the cervix go through changes known as dysplasia, in which abnormal cells begin to appear in the cervical tissue. Later, cancer cells start to grow and spread more deeply into the cervix and to surrounding areas.

Significance of cervical cancer

Thanks to widespread screening with the Pap test (Pap smear), the number of deaths due to cervical cancer has been decreasing. Screening tests have risks, however (refer to the PDQ summary on Screening for Cervical Cancer); prevention of cervical cancer may offer fewer risks and more benefits.

Many cases of cervical cancer are associated with known risk factors for the disease. Some of the risk factors cannot be avoided, but many can.

HPV Infection: Cervical infection with HPV is the primary risk factor for cervical cancer. There are over 80 types of human papillomavirus (HPV). Approximately 30 types are transmitted sexually (passed from one person to another by sexual contact) and can infect the cervix. About half of these have been linked to cervical cancer. However, HPV infection is very common and only a very small number of women infected with untreated HPV will develop cervical cancer. A vaccine to prevent infection with the two types of HPV that cause approximately 70 percent of cervical cancers, and the two types of HPV that cause 90 percent of genital warts, has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and other vaccines are under study. The approved vaccine provides protection against infection with these HPV types for at least five years. How much longer the protection lasts is under study.

Sexual History: HPV infections that cause cervical cancer are spread mainly through sexual contact. Women who begin having sexual intercourse at an early age and women who have had many sexual partners are at a greater risk of HPV infection and developing cervical cancer. Some methods used to prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) reduce the risk of cervical cancer. The use of barrier methods of birth control and/or gels that kill sperm offer some protection but do not completely protect against STDs.

Reproductive History: Having a high number of full-term pregnancies (7 or more) increases the risk of cervical cancer.

Use of Oral Contraceptives: Long-term use of oral contraceptives (5 years or more) increases the risk of cervical cancer.

Screening History: Receiving regular gynecological exams and Pap tests helps to prevent cervical cancer. Abnormal changes in the cervix can be detected (found) by the Pap test and treated before cancer develops. Women who do not regularly have Pap tests have an increased risk of cervical cancer.

Smoking: Cigarette smoking is associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer.

Diet: Several studies have suggested that certain micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) may reduce the risk of cervical cancer, but this has not been proven.

Knowing the risk factors for cervical cancer can help you avoid them

Cancer information from the NCI PDQ service