Cervical cancer was once a leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States. Today, screening and prevention have greatly reduced the impact of this form of cancer. Still, nearly 14,500 women in the United States received a diagnosis of cervical cancer and more than 4,200 died from the disease last year, according to the National Cancer Institute.
What is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer is a disease in which cancer cells form in the cervix (connects the vagina to the uterus and dilates during labor). The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus (the hollow, pear-shaped organ where a fetus grows). The cervix connects the uterus to the vagina (birth canal).
Cervical cancer usually develops slowly over time. Before cancer appears in the cervix, the cells of the cervix go through a series of changes in which cells that are not normal begin to appear in the cervicaltissue. In most cases, cervical cancer is caused by a high-risk type of human papilloma virus, or HPV, that enters the cervix through the vagina.
What are risk factors for Cervical Cancer?
Being exposed to a drug called diethylstilbestrol (DES) while in the mother’s womb
In women who are infected with HPV, other risk factors include:
Having given birth to three or more children
Having a weakened immune system
Taking birth control pills for five years or longer
Being sexually active at a young age or having many sexual partners
What are protective measures that can be taken?
The first protective measure that can greatly decrease the risk of cervical cancer would be to get the HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine is recommended for preteens aged 11 to 12 years, but can be given starting at age 9. The HPV vaccine is also recommended for everyone through age 26 years, if they are not vaccinated already. Though the HPV vaccine is approved for individuals up to age 45, it provides less benefit due to most people being already exposed to HPV. If you are 27 years of age or older, we recommend talking to your doctor about the risk for new HPV infections and the possible benefits of vaccination.
The next important protective measure would be screening tests. There are two screening tests that can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early:
The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for pre-cancers, cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately.
The HPV test looks for the virus that can cause these cell changes.