Health Topics

How Can I Protect Myself from Cervical Cancer?

Did you know that cancer of the womb and cervix used to be the number one cause of cancer deaths in women in the United States? That fact was true in 1930s and early 1940s. Today this disease has fallen to number seven. 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.

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 health care provider for information and advice. Cervical cancer can occur at any age. Middle-aged women who have had several sexual partners have an increased risk. Women can reduce their risk by getting a PAP smear.

What causes cancer of the cervix?

In the last ten years, doctors have found that most cases of this cancer are caused by some types of HPV, the human papilloma virus. This virus, or germ, may be passed along during sex. What increases your chances of getting HPV? The following are what health care providers call "risk factors" for cervical cancer:

  • Having sex (intercourse) as a teenager
  • Having AIDS or a problem with your immune system
  • Having many sex partners
  • Having sex and not using condoms
  • Smoking cigarettes

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 condom each time you have sex.
  • 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. It is best to get the vaccine before the start of sexual activity. The vaccine consists of a series of three shots, with shot two coming 2 months after the first, and shot three coming 6 months after the first. If you already have HPV, the vaccine does not treat or cure but can still help protect against other types of HPV infections (other than those that cause cervical cancer; for example, the vaccine can help protect against the HPV that causes genital warts).

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 be easily treated.

What is the PAP smear?

The PAP smear, or PAP test, is the best test to detect cancer of the cervix. It has been used since 1941. The test itself is done as part of a regular pelvic exam. A medical swab or brush is rubbed against the cervix and a "smear," or sample, is taken. This sample is sent to a lab for testing.

The results of the test should be back within two weeks. If the test shows any abnormal cells (cells that are not normal), you will need to see your health care provider again in order to discuss further testing.

Where can I learn more?

National Cancer Institute
Bethesda, MD 20205
NCI Cancer Information Hotline
800.422.6237 (800.4.CANCER)

American Cancer Society
1599 Clifton Road, NE
Atlanta, GA 30329

For more information, visit Cleveland Clinic's Center for Specialized Women's Health.