What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer occurs when an abnormal growth of cells (dysplasia) is found on the cervix, which is located between the vagina and the uterus. It often develops over several years. 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 it’s found in time, it can be treated before it causes major problems.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that there will be over 13,000 new cases of cervical cancer in 2019. Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most important risk factors for developing cervical cancer.

However, there are also other factors that can put you at risk as well.

HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact or during oral, vaginal, or anal sex.

HPV is one of the most common STIs in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 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 on or around the genitals, anus, and mouth. Other strains are considered high-risk and can cause cancer.

In particular, HPV types 16 and 18 are most 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 sex with a condom or other barrier method. Also, get regular Pap smears to see if HPV has caused changes in cervical cells.

Other STIs can also place you at risk for cervical cancer. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) weakens the immune system. This makes it more difficult for the body to fight cancer or infections like HPV.

According to the American Cancer Society, women who currently have or have had chlamydia are more likely to develop cervical cancer. Chlamydia is an STI that’s caused by a bacterial infection. It often has no symptoms.

Some risk factors for cervical cancer are related to lifestyle habits. If you smoke, you’re twice as likely to develop cervical cancer. Smoking reduces the ability of your immune system to fight infections like HPV.

Additionally, smoking introduces chemicals that can cause cancer into your body. These chemicals are called carcinogens. Carcinogens can cause damage to the DNA in the cells of your cervix. They can play a role in cancer formation.

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

Women who take oral contraceptives that contain synthetic versions of the hormones estrogen and progesterone for five or more years are at a higher risk for cervical cancer compared to women who’ve never taken oral contraceptives.

However, cervical cancer risk declines after stopping oral contraceptives. According to the American Cancer Society, risk returns to normal after about 10 years.

Women who have had an intrauterine device (IUD) are actually at lower risk for cervical cancer than women who have never had an IUD. This is still true even if the device was used for less than a year.

There are several other risk factors for cervical cancer. Women who’ve had more than three full-term pregnancies or were younger than 17 at the time of their first full-term pregnancy are at higher risk for cervical cancer.

Having a family history of cervical cancer is also a risk factor. This is especially true 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 mentally and emotionally challenging. 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.

A vaccine is available to protect against some of the HPV strains most likely to cause cervical cancer. It’s currently recommended for boys and girls ages 11 through 12. It’s also recommended for women up to age 45 and men up to age 21 who weren’t previously vaccinated.

If you’re within this age bracket and haven’t been vaccinated, you should talk to your doctor about vaccination.

In addition to vaccination, practicing sex with a condom or other barrier method and quitting smoking if you smoke are key steps you can take to prevent cervical cancer.

Making sure that you get regular cervical cancer screenings is also an important part of reducing your cervical cancer risk. How often should you be screened? The timing and type of screening depends on your age.

The American Cancer Society recommend the following screening guidelines:

  • Women younger than 25 years: Cervical cancer screening isn’t recommended.
  • Women ages 25 through 65: Cervical cancer screening through primary HPV test every five years.
  • Women age 65 and older: Cervical cancer screening isn’t recommended, provided that adequate prior screening was performed.

There are several different risk factors for developing cervical cancer. The most important of which is HPV infection. However, other STIs and lifestyle habits can also increase your risk.

There are many different things that you can do to help lower your risk of getting cervical cancer. These can include:

  • getting vaccinated
  • receiving regular cervical cancer screenings
  • practicing sex with a condom or other barrier method

If you’re diagnosed with cervical cancer, talk with your doctor to discuss your options. That way, you’ll be able to develop a treatment plan that’s best for you.