Cervical cancer typically develops slowly over time with abnormal cells beginning to grow in the cervix first. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus where the uterus connects to the vagina. These are the cells that are most often found during screening tests. If abnormal cells are not found and treated, cancer cells may grow and spread further into the cervix and to other organs in the area.
Abnormal cervical cells grow most often in women 20-30 years old. Because cervical cancer is a slow-growing cancer, the chance of death is highest for white women between 45-70 years old and for black women age 70 and up. Death from cervical cancer is seen most often in black women than white women.
There are several known risk factors for cervical cancer. Some can be prevented, some can not.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection: HPV infection is very common and can sometimes go away on its own. There are more than 80 types of HPV; 30 of those are passed by sexual contact. About half of HPV passed by sexual contact is linked to cervical cancer. Not all women with HPV will develop cervical cancer. A vaccine to prevent transfer of four HPV types has been approved by the FDA and is being studied to see if it protects women past five years.
- Sexual history: Women who have had many sexual partners or who had sex at an early age are at a higher risk of HPV infection. Using barrier birth control methods is one way to reduce the risk of passing on or picking up the virus from a partner.
- Reproductive history: Women who have a high number of full-term pregnancies (7 or more) have a higher risk of cervical cancer.
- Use of birth control pills: Also known as oral contraceptives. Using these over five years or more will increase the risk of cervical cancer.
- Screening history: Women who get regular pelvic exams and Pap tests have a lower risk of cervical cancer. Abnormal cell changes can be found during Pap tests and treated before cancer cells begin to grow.
- Smoking: Smoking is linked with a higher risk of developing cervical cancer.
- Having a weakened immune system.
- Daily diet: Previous studies have found some vitamins and minerals may reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer. This has not been proven yet.
Regular screening tests, such as a pelvic exam or Pap test, can detect changes in the cells before they turn cancerous. A Pap test is when cells are collected from the top layer of skin on the cervix and vagina. These cells are then looked at with a microscope to find out if any are abnormal. If abnormal cells are found, the doctor may want to do a HPV DNA test to see if a HPV infection is present.
All women over the age of 18 or sexually active should be seen once a year for a Pap test and pelvic exam. If a woman has three normal exams in a row, she can discuss with her doctor only coming in to be screened every three years.
For more information about cervical cancer or any cancer concern, contact
Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center/Cancer Information Service
Walk-in: 200 Hawkins Drive, 4802 JPP
Iowa City, Iowa 52242