Causes, risk factors and prevention
What are risk factors for cervical cancer?
The following have been suggested as risk factors for cervical cancer:
- Infection with the human papillomavirus – most often the result of unprotected sex.
- Infection with the human immunodeficiency virus or other condition that weakens the immune system – the precursor to AIDS.
- Having an organ transplant and taking medicine to supress the immune system.
- Smoking – women who smoke are nearly twice as likely as nonsmokers to have cervical cancer.
- Age – the risk of cancer of the cervix increases between the late teens and mid-30s; however, cervical cancer can occur at any age.
- Having sexual intercourse before the age of 18.
- Having many sexual partners, and having partners who have had sexual intercourse at a young age and/or have had many partners themselves.
- Infection with sexually transmitted diseases such as herpes and chlamydia.
Chlamydia and cervical cancer
New research has shown that chlamydia, the most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S., may increase a woman’s risk of developing cervical cancer. In the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, women who showed signs of any type of chlamydial infection in their blood were two-and-a-half times more likely to develop cervical cancer, when compared to women with no sign of infection. Although the reason for this increased risk is still under investigation, researchers speculate that immune system cells that are activated at chlamydia infection sites may damage normal cells.
Can cervical cancer be prevented?
Early detection of cervical problems is the best way to prevent cervical cancer. Routine, annual pelvic examinations and Pap tests can detect precancerous conditions that often can be treated before cancer develops. Invasive cancer that does occur would likely be found at an earlier stage. Pelvic examinations and Pap tests are the methods used to determine if there are cervical problems. Women who are or have been sexually active, or are age 21 or older, should have regular checkups, including a pelvic examination and Pap test.
According to the National Institutes of Health, a pelvic examination and Pap test allow the physician to detect abnormal changes in the cervix. If an infection is present, it is treated and the Pap test is repeated at a later time. If the examination or Pap test suggests something other than an infection, a repeated Pap test and other tests are performed to determine the problem.
Women who have had a hysterectomy (surgery to remove the uterus, including the cervix) should ask their physician’s advice about the frequency of having pelvic examinations and Pap tests.