Understanding cervical cancer: signs, causes & risk factors

HPV vaccination and routine screenings can help prevent cervical cancer

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Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of cancer death for women in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thanks to regular testing and the introduction of the HPV vaccine, the number of cancer cases and deaths has dropped significantly.

Vaccination and early detection have made it one of the most preventable forms of cancer.

Cervical cancer overview

Cervical cancer begins in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus. The cervix connects the uterus to the vagina (birth canal).

Cancer starts when the body’s healthy cells change and begin to grow abnormally. The DNA of the cells develops mutations that cause the cells to grow out of control. Over time, the growth can lead to a mass and eventually spread elsewhere in the body if left untreated.

Causes of cervical cancer

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common cause cause of cervical cancer. HPV is a sexually transmitted virus, and a majority of people who are sexually active will be exposed to HPV in their lifetime. Vaccination can prevent acquiring this infection.

Most HPV infections are benign and disappear on their own. When the virus does not disappear, it can lead to cervical cancer.

Other factors, such as smoking and having HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), can also increase your risk of cervical cancer.

Find a doctor: Choose from the experts at Sanford Health

Symptoms of cervical cancer

Cervical cancer can take years to develop. The beginning stages of cervical cancer produce little to no symptoms.

At an early stage, cervical cancer is often curable. Left untreated, cervical cancer can spread to other parts of the body, making it more difficult to cure.

As the cancer progresses, symptoms may include:

  • Bleeding or discharge after sex
  • Bleeding between periods or after menopause
  • Pain during sex

If you experience any of these symptoms, notify your provider. They can help determine the cause and provide treatment recommendations.

Cervical cancer testing options

The best way to know if you have cervical cancer is through screening.

Fortunately, regular testing and follow-up appointments make cervical cancer the easiest gynecologic cancer to prevent, according to the CDC.

Two types of tests

A Pap smear or Pap test is used to find precancers, or cell changes on the cervix that could become cancerous if not treated properly.

A Pap test result may be normal, unclear or abnormal.

  • Normal: The test didn’t find abnormal changes on your cervix, and your test was negative. Your doctor will let you know how long to wait before your next test.
  • ASC-US: It’s possible that your cervical cells could be abnormal, though it could be related to other changes like infection, menopause or pregnancy. Ask your doctor for next steps.
  • Abnormal: The test found cell changes on your cervix. Typically, an abnormal result doesn’t mean that you have cervical cancer. Many times, these changes are causes by HPV. Minor changes usually return to normal without treatment. More concerning changes may become cancer if not treated. You may need other tests to confirm. Ask your doctor about next steps.

An HPV test is used to find the virus that can cause cell changes.

An HPV test result may be positive or negative.

  • Negative: You do not have an HPV type connected to cervical cancer. Your doctor will let you know how long to wait before your next test.
  • Positive: You have an HPV type that could be connected to cervical cancer. A positive result does not mean that you currently have cervical cancer but could serve as a warning. Your doctor will give you guidance on next steps.

When to get tested

  • Women ages 21 to 29: receive Pap tests every 3 years
  • Women ages 30 to 65: receive a Pap test and HPV screening every 5 years
  • There is new evidence suggesting HPV only screening. You can discuss this option with your provider.

Reducing cervical cancer risk

Some steps you can take to reduce your risk of cervical cancer include:

  1. Get the HPV vaccine: The vaccine is the safest and most effective way to prevent cervical cancer, especially when given between the ages of 9-12. It is still beneficial to receive vaccination even if you are already sexually active, and the vaccine can be given up to age 45.
  2. Receive regular screenings: Tests can discover precancerous cervical cells, allowing for early treatment and continuous monitoring to prevent cervical cancer.
  3. Practice safe sex: Using condoms during sex and limiting the number of sexual partners can decrease your risk of getting a sexually transmitted infection.
  4. Don’t smoke: Smoking has been linked to squamous cell cervical cancer. If you smoke, find ways to quit by talking with your provider.

Preventive screenings are key to catching diseases early when they’re most treatable – and before they become serious. Learn more about preventive care.

Information in this article was reviewed by Nicole Woodley, M.D., a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology at Sanford Health.

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Posted In Cancer, Cancer Screenings