Understanding what puts you at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer, or other cancers, can keep you healthier throughout your lifetime. While you can’t change some risk factors, you can be very careful about your screening. And for those risk factors within your control, you have an opportunity to lower your risk of developing cervical cancer in the future by making better lifestyle and health care choices.
Risk Factors for Developing Cervical Cancer
HPV and Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer is almost always caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection that is spread through sexual contact. There are more than 80 types of human papillomavirus and about 30 of these can infect the cervix. HPV types 16 and 18 are most often linked to cervical cancer.
HPV infects the squamous cells that line the inner surface of the cervix. For this reason, most HPV-related cancers are a type of cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.
DES and Cervical Cancer
Being exposed to a drug called diethylstilbestrol (DES) while in the mother's womb increases the risk of cervical dysplasia and clear cell adenocarcinoma of the vagina and cervix. Between 1940 and 1971, DES was given to some pregnant women in the United States to prevent miscarriage and premature labor.
Factors that Increase Risk Even More for Women with HPV
For women with HPV, the presence of other risk factors increases the overall risk of being diagnosed.
- Giving birth to many children. Among women who are infected with HPV, those who have had 7 or more full-term pregnancies have an increased risk of cervical cancer.
- Use of oral contraceptives for an extended time. Among women who are infected with HPV, those who have used oral contraceptives ("the Pill") for 5 to 9 years have a risk of cervical cancer that is 3 times greater than that of women who have never used oral contraceptives. The risk is 4 times greater after 10 or more years of use.
- Smoking. Among women who are infected with HPV, those who either smoke cigarettes or breathe in secondhand smoke have an increased risk of cervical cancer. The risk increases with the number of cigarettes smoked per day and how long the woman has smoked.
Those more likely to contract HPV are women with...
- Immune system deficiency. Having a weakened immune system caused by immunosuppression increases the risk of HPV infection and cervical cancer. Immunosuppression weakens the body’s ability to fight infection and other diseases.
- Many sexual partners or being sexually active at a young age. The risk of HPV infection is higher in women who become sexually active before age 18 and in women who have had 6 or more sexual partners.
- Other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Studies show that women with herpes or chlamydia are more likely to have an HPV infection which increases the risk of cervical cancer.
Is Cervical Cancer Genetic?
Having a family history of cervical cancer may increase your risk of a cervical cancer diagnosis. If your mother or sister had cervical cancer, your chances of developing the disease are higher than if no one in the family had it. It may not necessarily be a hereditary condition, however. Women in the same family could be more likely to have one or more of the other non-genetic risk factors previously described in this section. Talk to your doctor about the risk factors that you and your family members share.
Cervical Cancer Risk Reduction
You can take action to help reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer by:
- Getting the HPV vaccine
- Quitting smoking
- Using condoms while having sex
- Limiting the number of sexual partners
- Delaying first sexual intercourse until the late teens or older
- Avoiding sex with people who have had many partners
- Avoiding sex with people who have genital warts or show other symptoms
All women should be sure to have a cervical cancer screening program in place. Cervical cancer is often completely cured when caught early.