Cervical cancer occurs when an abnormal growth of cells (dysplasia) is found on the cervix, which is located between the vagina and the uterus. According to the National Cancer Institute, 12,360 people were diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014.

According to the American Cancer Society, cervical cancer develops very slowly. Since there are few symptoms, many women don’t even know they have it. Usually cervical cancer is detected in a Pap smear during a gynecological visit. If found in time, it can be treated before it causes major problems.

Researchers believe that most cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). However, there are also other factors that can put you at risk for cervical cancer.

HPV is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that can be passed from skin-to-skin contact during oral, vaginal, or anal intercourse. It’s one of the most common STDs in the United States, and the National Cancer Institute estimates that over half the population will acquire a form of HPV at one point in their lives.

There are many strains of HPV. Some strains are low-risk HPVs and cause warts. Other strains are high-risk and can cause cancer. In particular, HPV types 16 and 18 are associated with cervical cancer. These strains invade the tissues in the cervix and over time cause changes in the cervix cells and lesions that develop into cancer.

Not everyone who has HPV develops cancer. In fact, oftentimes the HPV infection goes away on its own. The best way to reduce your chances of contracting HPV is to practice safe sex and get regular Pap smears to see if HPV has caused changes in cervical cells.

Other STDs can place you at risk for cervical cancer. HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, causes your immune system to weaken. This makes it more difficult for your body to fight infections like HPV or cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, researchers have also found that people who have had chlamydia, another STD caused by a bacteria, were more likely to have cervical cancer.

Some risk factors for cervical cancer are related to lifestyle habits. Smoking is one habit that makes you twice as likely to have cervical cancer. This is probably because smoking reduces the ability of your immune system to fight infections like HPV. Smoking also introduces chemicals (carcinogens) into your body that cause cancer. These chemicals damage the cells of your cervix and can play a role in cancer formation.

Your diet can also affect your chances of getting cervical cancer. Obese women are more likely to develop certain types of cervical cancer. Women whose diets are low in fruits and vegetables are at higher risk for developing cervical cancer.

Drugs taken for reproductive health may contribute to the development of cervical cancer. Women who take or have taken oral contraceptives for a long time are at a higher risk for cervical cancer. However, women who have had an intrauterine device (IUD) are at lower risk for cervical cancer than women who have never had an IUD, even if the device was used for less than a year.

There are several other risk factors for cervical cancer. Women who have had more than three full-term pregnancies or were younger than 17 at the time of their first pregnancy are at higher risk for cervical cancer. Having a family history of cervical cancer is a risk factor, especially if a direct relative such as your mother or sister has had cervical cancer.

Being at risk for getting any kind of cancer can be frightening. The good news is that cervical cancer may be preventable. It develops slowly and there are a lot of things you can do to reduce your chances of developing cancer. Getting annual Pap smears, practicing safe sex, and quitting smoking are three big steps you can take. If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, work closely with your doctor to discuss your options and choose a treatment plan that is best for you.