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Risk Factors for Cervical Cancer

A risk factor is something that increases your chances of getting a disease or condition.

It is possible to develop cervical cancer with or without the risk factors listed below. However, the more risk factors you have, the greater your likelihood of developing cervical cancer. If you have a number of risk factors, ask your healthcare provider what you can do to reduce your risk.

Risk factors include:

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Infection

Infection of the cervix with human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease, is the primary risk factor for cervical cancer. There are more than 70 types of viruses called papillomaviruses. Certain HPV types can cause warts on the female and male genital organs and anus. HPV is passed from one person to another during sexual contact. Large studies have found a particular type of HPV—called HPV C, with types HPV 16, 18, 31, and 45C— in more than 93% of cervical cancer cases.

A vaccine has recently been developed to protect against infection by the most common types of HPV associated with cervical cancer, but it must be given before infection to be effective.

Age

After the age of 25, the risk of developing cervical cancer begins to increase. But, this cancer can be diagnosed in young women in their early 20s and even in their teens. After age 40, the risk of developing cervical cancer stays about stable. The risk of dying from cervical cancer increases as women get older.

Sexual History

Women who had sexual intercourse at an early age or women who have had many sexual partners are at an increased risk of cervical cancer. If a woman is with a partner who has had many sexual partners, this also increases her risk.

History of Not Having Pap Tests

Women who have never had a Pap test or who have not had one for several years have a higher-than-average risk of developing cervical cancer. This screening tool is quite effective for catching abnormal cell growth early, before it progresses to cancer.

Smoking

By smoking, you are exposing your body to many cancer-causing chemicals. Tobacco by-products have been found in the cervical mucus in women who smoke. The risk appears to increase with the number of cigarettes smoked per day and the number of years a woman has smoked. Smokers are about twice as likely as nonsmokers to get cervical cancer.

Diethylstilbestrol (DES)

Between 1940 and 1971, doctors prescribed DES, a hormone, to pregnant women who were thought to be at an increased risk for miscarriage. About 1 out of every 1,000 women whose mother took DES when pregnant with them will develop cancer of the cervix or vagina. Almost all of these women who go on to develop cervical cancer as a result of DES have a cellular change in the cervix that can be detected. Women born between 1940 and 1972 who have been exposed to DES, or who are uncertain about their exposure history, should discuss with their physicians how to determine their risk and best screening measures.

Weakened Immune System

Several reports have shown that women with weakened immune systems—as with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or from immune-suppressing drugs taken after a transplant—are more likely to develop cervical cancer. (HIV damages the body’s immune system; this makes a woman more susceptible to HPV infection, which may increase the risk of cervical cancer.) In someone with a weakened immune system a cervical precancer may develop into an invasive cancer faster than it normally would in a woman without a weakened immune system.

Poor Nutrition

Diets low in fruits and vegetables are associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer.

Race and Ethnicity

In the United States, several racial and ethnic groups have higher cervical cancer death rates. Among African Americans, the death rate from cervical cancer is more than twice the national average. Hispanics and American Indians also have death rates above the average.

Low Socioeconomic Status

Experts believe that women with low socioeconomic status are at an increased risk due to a lack of ready access to adequate healthcare services. This may keep women from getting the necessary screening needed to diagnose and treat cervical cancer in its early stages.

References:

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

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/ .

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



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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