Health Topics

An Overview of Cervical Cancer

When you regularly get a test known as a PAP smear, you greatly reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer.

What Is Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer is a tumor or growth in the tissue of a woman's cervix. The cervix is the lowest part of the womb, or uterus, through which babies pass when they are born. It is located high inside the vagina. If not treated, cancer of the cervix can be deadly and/or can affect pregnancy and delivery by increasing the need for cervical procedures and hysterectomy.

Who Is at Risk?

All women are at risk for cancer of the cervix, generally after beginning to have sexual relations. When a woman, regardless of her age, begins having sex, she should see her healthcare provider for discussion on contraceptions and family planning, in addition to routine gynecology screening and exams. Cervical cancer can occur at any age. Mid-life women who have had multiple sexual partners have an increased risk. Women can reduce their risk of dying of cervical cancer by getting periodic pap smears and by age 30 getting tested for HPV (human papilloma virus) which is the cause of cervical cancer (as well as other cancers and genital warts).

What Causes Cancer of the Cervix?

In the last several years, doctors have found that most all cases of this cancer are caused by some types of HPV, the human papilloma virus, such as HPV 16, 18, 31 and 33. This virus, or germ, may be passed along during sex. What increases your chances of getting HPV? The following are what healthcare providers call "risk factors" for cervical cancer:

  • Having sex (intercourse) as a teenager when the cervix is more vunerable to HPV infection
  • Having HIV/AIDS or a problem with your immune system (e.g., chronic steroids)
  • Having many sex partners (increases risk of sexually transmitted infections and increases HPV exposure)
  • Having sex and not using condoms
  • Smoking cigarettes

However, even having one sexual partner can lead to HPV and the majority of women who have had sexual activity have evidence of being exposed to HPV by age 50. So all women need to be concerned about HPV. Women who have had the HPV vaccine still need to have periodic pap smears.

How Can I Protect Myself From Cervical Cancer?

The following are important steps that you can take to protect yourself from cervical cancer:

  • Practice safer sex. Use a latex condom each time you have sexual activity. (Spermicides are not more effective than condom use alone.)
  • Limit your number of sex partners.
  • Don't smoke cigarettes.
  • Get a PAP smear by age 21. Paps are done every three years until age 30 at which time an HPV is added. If the PAP and HPV tests are normal and you have no risks, PAP smears with HPV testing are then done every five years until age 65-70.
  • Get vaccinated with the HPV vaccine. One vaccine, called Gardasil®, is approved for girls and women ages 9 to 26 and protects against the development of cervical cancer and genital warts. It is best to get the vaccine at a younger age when the immunity response is more robust. The vaccination schedule is the first vaccine, then the second vaccine is no earlier than two months before the initial vaccine and the third vaccine is no earlier than six months before the initial vaccine was given. Reminder, vaccine cards and even text messages are available from the manufacturer. Cervarix® is another vaccine approved for girls and women to reduce the risk of cervical cancer. Gardasil® is now approved for boys and men ages 9 to 26 to reduce the risk of HPV infection.

Cervical cancer may not cause any symptoms until it is too late to be cured. PAP smears can detect early cancer and even pre-cancerous abnormalities, which can usually be easily treated.

What Is the PAP Smear?

The PAP smear is the best test to detect cancer of the cervix. Done as part of a regular pelvic exam, a medical swab or brush is rubbed against the cervix and a sample is taken for testing.

Even if you are not due for a PAP smear, you still need to see your women's health doctor yearly. There is no need for a PAP smear, if you've had a hysterectomy that included the cervix and no signs of cancer. However, you still need to see your women's health doctor for periodic pelvic exams.

The results of the PAP test should be back within two weeks. If the test shows any abnormal cells, then you will need to see your healthcare provider again in order to discuss further testing. Be sure to get the results of your PAP smear as 'no news' does not necessarily mean 'good news'.