Reducing Your Risk of Cervical Cancer

A risk factor increases your chance of getting a disease. Risk factors for many diseases have been identified. Some risk factors can be avoided, like smoking. Other risk factors you may have no control over, like genetic predisposition. If you have a certain risk factor, that doesn’t mean that you will definitely get a certain disease. But if it is a controllable risk factor, and you change it, you will reduce your risk. This is true for cervical cancer; there are several risk factors that are modifiable.

Here are some ways to help you reduce your risk of cervical cancer:

Get an Annual Pap Test

Early detection and treatment of precancerous tissue remain the most effective ways of preventing cervical cancer. Since cervical cancer rarely produces symptoms in its early stages, the best way to detect it is routine visits to your doctor for a pelvic exam and Pap test. Women who do not regularly have a Pap test are at increased risk of cervical cancer.

The pelvic exam and Pap test are recommended once a year after the age of 18, or once a year after you become sexually active.

Practice Safe Sex

Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease, is the primary risk factor for cervical cancer. Women who have had multiple sexual partners or who began having sex before the age of 16 are at greater risk of exposure to HPV infection and developing cervical cancer.

To decrease your risk, maintain a monogamous relationship, one in which you are having sex with only your partner and your partner is having sex only with you. Whether or not you are in a monogamous relationship, using a condom every single time you have sexual intercourse will decrease your risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease and your risk of cervical cancer. Although it is always wise to use a condom to prevent some STDs, a condom will not prevent an HPV infection because the virus can be transmitted by the perineal and perianal skin or hair, and this is not covered by the condom.

A vaccine called Gradasil™ has been approved to prevent infection by some—but not all—of HPV strains that cause cervical cancer. Gradasil™ is the first vaccine ever developed to primarily prevent a cancer. The vaccine reduces the risk of infection from four strains of HPV, including the two strains—16 and 18—that account for over 70% of HPV infections leading to cancer. In a recent large trial involving women aged 15-26, the vaccine effectively reduced the incidence of precancerous cervical lesions over a three year period.*

Three injections are required over 6 months. It is currently unknown how frequently boosters will be required or the degree to which the vaccine will be effective long term because of changes in antibody titers with time. In addition, the vaccine should be given before sexual activity begins, as vaccination after exposure to the strains of HPV in the vaccine is ineffective. Gradasil™ is approved for use in females aged 9-26, but its use in teenagers has generated controversy because of the social and moral implications.

Do Not Smoke

Smoking exposes your body to many cancer-causing chemicals. Smokers are about twice as likely as nonsmokers to develop cervical cancer. Stopping now will greatly reduce your risk of cervical cancer.

For more information on quitting smoking, click here.

Eat a Balanced Diet

Good nutrition is essential for health and well being. Women with poor diets may be at an increased risk for cervical cancer. Studies have found an association between diets low in fruits and vegetables and an increased risk of cervical cancer.

For more information about eating a healthful diet, click here.

References:

American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/docroot/home/index.asp.

National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/.

Updated Vaccine section on 5/18/2007 according to the following study, as cited by DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance: The FUTURE II Study Group. Quadrivalent vaccine against human papillomavirus to prevent high-grade cervical lesions. N Engl J Med. 2007;356:1915-1927.



Last reviewed April 2007 by Barbara Harty-Golder, MD, JD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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