Being Well

Get to Know Cervical Cancer Risk Factors and Prevention

Cervical cancer can be prevented with immunizations and routine Pap tests. Talk to your doctor about cervical cancer risk factors and prevention.

Cervical cancer is considered one of the more preventable diagnoses, provided patients have access to routine medical care including the vaccines and tests. There are quite a few cervical cancer risk factors for the disease, but they’re all secondary to the most important one: human papilloma virus (HPV) infection.

What is HPV?

HPV is collection of viruses, some of which can cause cancer. HPV infection is common and is spread by unprotected sexual contact. This viral infection can occur and clear up with no symptoms, so not everyone knows whether they have a history of HPV.

The best way to prevent HPV from causing cervical cancer to develop is to have routine Pap tests, which will collect cells from your cervix and vagina and test them for precancerous changes. If the changes are detected while they’re precancerous, they can be treated to prevent the cancer from developing.

There are vaccines available to prevent HPV infection. Ideally these vaccines are administered to children around the age of eleven, although the vaccine can also be given to young adults.

Learn the Cervical Cancer Risk Factors

While the American Cancer Society calls HPV the most important risk factor, others include:

  • Having a weakened immune system
  • Having your first full-term pregnancy before the age of 17
  • Having several pregnancies
  • Experience a chlamydia infection
  • Using birth control pills long-term
  • Being overweight
  • Having a diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • Not having routine Pap smears
  • Smoking

Some factors depend on your birth year. If your mother was given Diethylstilbestrol (DES) while she was pregnant with you, it could increase your chances. (DES is a drug that was administered to prevent miscarriages from the 1940s to 1971.)

Know Your Signs

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that cervical cancer has no symptoms in its early stages. As the disease advances, it may cause unusual vaginal discharge and bleeding. Discuss these symptoms with your doctor. Cervical cancer is highly treatable if caught early, but the lack of symptoms makes detecting it early a bit difficult.

There are a few steps you can take to help reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer or catch it earlier. You first want to consider some lifestyle changes, including ceasing smoking and adopting a healthier diet with more vegetables and exercise. Practicing safe sex with protection is also important. You’ll want to pay attention to your menstrual cycle and note any changes, especially unusual discharge or unexpected bleeding after intercourse.

Get Comfortable

It’s important to develop a healthy doctor-patient relationship with your gynecologist. Sometimes people need to find a different doctor if they feel they can’t speak openly with their current doctor. Some topics may feel awkward to discuss, but details about things like changes in sexual activity, menstruation and toilet habits may provide your doctor with useful information for diagnosing and treating a number of conditions. You should also discuss your use of birth control pills with your doctor, as the National Cancer Institute reports that long-term use of birth control pills can increase the risk of developing cervical cancer.

You obviously would prefer to prevent cervical cancer than to try to diagnose and treat it before it spreads. This requires coming in for a routine gynecological exam every few years. Women ages 21 to 65 should get a Pap smear every 3 years, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, with some exceptions to this timeframe. (All USPSTF information on cervical cancer screenings can be found here.) In addition to routine Pap smears and getting the HPV vaccine, practicing safe sex and avoiding the risk factors listed above can help prevent cervical cancer from developing (as well as helping to maintain overall health). If you’re worried you’re susceptible to cervical cancer risk factors, talk to your doctor about prevention.

An important aspect of your health is finding the right doctor. The talented, renowned staff at the UVA Cancer Center has the match for you.

Learn More
Judy Schwartz Haley
Judy Schwartz Haley