In the past, cervical cancer was one of the most common causes of death for women. Today, doctors are able to catch and treat cervical cancer much earlier.

Pap tests can help detect pre-cancerous cells in the cervix, which doctors can remove before cervical cancer even develops. That’s why having regular screenings and understanding your risk for cervical cancer is so important.

One factor that can increase your risk of cervical cancer is having a mother or sister with cervical cancer. However, it’s rare for cervical cancer to pass along in families. Instead, shared home environments often mean families share similar risk factors.

Read on to learn more about the genetic and non-genetic risk factors for cervical cancer.

Having a mother or sister with cervical cancer is a risk factor for developing the cancer yourself. However, that doesn’t mean that cervical cancer is genetic or that it’s always passed through families.

The two most common types of cervical cancer — squamous cell or adenocarcinoma cervical cancer — are not hereditary (they aren’t caused by genetic factors). However, the risk of developing certain rare types of cervical cancer may be increased by the following two genetic factors:

  • Damaged DICER1 gene. People with a damaged DICER1 gene are at risk for a type of cervical cancer called embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma.
  • Peutz-Jegher syndrome (PJS). People with PJS are at greater risk for breast, colon, pancreatic, and lung cancers than they are for cervical or ovarian cancers.

Certain inherited factors (such as faulty immune response genes and DNA repair genes) might also make it more difficult to fight off an HPV infection, leading to an increased risk for cervical cancer.

Overlapping family risk factors

Researchers believe it’s more often the case that women from the same families share overlapping risk factors that aren’t hereditary.

For instance, women whose mothers were given the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer. DES was commonly used between 1940 and 1970, and it’s highly likely that two sisters could share this risk factor.

Overall, it’s unlikely that a mother would pass cervical cancer down to her daughters. If you’re concerned cervical cancer might run in your family, a genetic test can provide some answers. It can tell you whether you carry either of the genes associated with rare types of cervical cancer.

You can also take steps to control other risk factors for yourself and the women in your family.

There are multiple studied risk factors for cervical cancer. Most of these risk factors have been shown to have a stronger link than heredity. Risk factors include:

  • A human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) and the largest single risk factor for cervical cancer. However, there are hundreds of strands of the HPV virus, and not all of them are linked to cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine can prevent the strains of HPV that are associated with an increased risk.
  • Other STIs. Genital herpes and chlamydia are also linked to a higher risk of cervical cancer.
  • Exposure to DES. DES exposure is a well-documented risk factor. It’s a good idea for women with mothers who took DES during pregnancy to have regular cervical cancer screenings.
  • A weakened immune system. Women with immune systems that have been weakened by medications or health conditions are at higher risk of cervical cancer.
  • Smoking. Smoking has been shown to significantly increase the risk of cervical cancer.

Additional risk factors related to your age and personal history

There are additional risk factors for cervical cancer that are related to your personal circumstances and history. These include:

  • Your age. Your risk for cervical cancer is highest between your early 20s and mid-30s.
  • Your access to medical care. Women from low-income households and neighborhoods, as well as women from historically marginalized communities, are more likely to face difficulties accessing medical care. This can include vaccines, STI screenings, pap tests, and other care that reduce the risk of cervical cancer.
  • Your sexual history. Your risk of HPV and other STIs goes up any time you have unprotected sex of any kind. Your risk for HPV also goes up if you started having unprotected sex at a young age and if you’ve had sex with someone who’s considered high-risk for HPV
  • Your pregnancy history. Women who had their first pregnancies before they were 20 or who had more than three full-term pregnancies are at an increased risk for cervical cancer. Researchers don’t know whether this is connected to sexual activity or to the hormonal and immune system changes associated with pregnancy.

Risk factors relating to diet and contraception

A few other risk factors are thought to be connected to cervical cancer but the link isn’t clear. More data is needed to understand these links.

  • Long-term use of oral contraceptives. Some studies have found that long-term use of oral birth control medication might increase your risk.
  • Not eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. There’s some evidence to think that nutrition might play a role in increasing your risk of cervical cancer.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to lower your risk for cervical cancer. These aren’t guaranteed to prevent cervical cancer, but they can make it less likely. Ways to lower your risk include:

  • Getting an HPV vaccine. An HPV vaccine is one of the best ways to protect yourself from HPV and to lower your risk of cervical cancer.
  • Getting regular cancer screenings. Annual pap tests and HPV tests can look for pre-cancers and check your overall risk for cervical cancer. Pre-cancer can be treated before it turns into cancer.
  • Having safe sex every time. Using condoms and other barrier methods, and talking about STIs with any sexual partners can help prevent HPV.
  • Quitting smoking, if you smoke. There are numerous health benefits to quitting smoking, including lowering your risk of cervical cancer.

Early stage cervical cancer can cause several symptoms. These symptoms can also be signs of other, less serious, health conditions.

However, it’s important to make a medical appointment as soon as possible to talk with a doctor about them, especially if it lasted for longer than a single menstrual cycle.

Let a doctor know if you’ve experienced:

  • bleeding or spotting after or between periods
  • heavy vaginal discharge
  • heavier than normal bleeding during your period
  • changes to the length of your menstrual cycle
  • bleeding after sex
  • bleeding after a pelvic exam
  • bleeding after douching
  • period-like bleeding after menopause
  • unexplained pelvic or back pain that doesn’t go away

One of the known risk factors for developing cervical cancer is having a mother or sister with cervical cancer.

However, the heredity or genetic link is very rare. Researchers believe that it’s more common for family members to share other non-genetic risk factors, such as having a mother who was given diethylstilbestrol (DES) during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage.

The biggest known risk for cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV infections account for nearly 99 percent of cervical cancers.

No matter your family history, there are steps you can take to lower your risk of cervical cancer. This includes getting an HPV vaccine, getting pap and HPV tests annually, and practicing safe sex.