What is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer is a disease where cancerous cells form on the cervix. The lowest part and opening of the uterus. The cervix connects the vagina and the uterus. Cervical cancer usually develops slowly over time. Before cancer appears in the cervix, the cells of the cervix go through a series of changes in which cells that are not normal begin to appear in the cervical tissue. When cells change from being normal cells to abnormal cells, it is called dysplasia. The abnormal cervical cells may go away without treatment, stay the same, or turn into cancer cells over many years.
What puts me at risk for Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer is almost always caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection that is spread through sexual contact. There are more than 80 types of human papillomavirus and about 30 of these can infect the cervix. HPV types 16 and 18 are most often linked to cervical cancer.
Most of the time, the body’s immune system can fight the HPV infection before cancer forms. Only a very small number of women infected with HPV develop cervical cancer.
In women who are infected with HPV, other risk factors add to the increased risk of cervical cancer:
Giving birth to many children
Among women who are infected with HPV, those who have had 7 or more full-term pregnancies have an increased risk of cervical cancer.
Using oral contraceptives for a long time
Among women who are infected with HPV, those who have used oral contraceptives ("the Pill") for 5 to 9 years have a risk of cervical cancer that is 3 times greater than that of women who have never used oral contraceptives. The risk is 4 times greater after 10 or more years of use. In women who stop taking oral contraceptives, over a 10 year period, the risk of cervical cancer returns to that of women who never used oral contraceptives.
Among women who are infected with HPV, those who either smoke cigarettes or breathe in secondhand smoke have an increased risk of cervical cancer. The risk increases with the number of cigarettes smoked per day and how long the woman has smoked. Current and former smokers have 2 to 3 times the risk of cervical dysplasia and invasive cervical cancer.
The following increase the risk of HPV infection:
Having a weakened immune system
Having a weakened immune system caused by immunosuppression increases the risk of HPV infection and cervical cancer. Immunosuppression weakens the body’s ability to fight infection and other diseases.
Women who are infected with the HIV virus or who take medicine to prevent organ rejection after transplant are less able to fight HPV infection and are at increased risk of cervical cancer.
Being sexually active at a young age or having many sexual partners
The risk of HPV infection is higher in women who become sexually active before age 18 and in women who have had 6 or more sexual partners.
What can I do to protect myself from getting cervical cancer?
Get a Pap Test
It is very important to have a yearly exam with your gynecologist. A common procedure at your yearly is a pap test.
What is a pap?
A pap test or pap smear is a very simple swab that collects a sample of cells from the cervix. That sample is then sent to a lab and examined. Should any abnormal cells be detected, further testing can be done to determine how to move forward with treatment.
Avoiding sexual activity
Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV infection, which is spread through sexual activity. Women who are not sexually active have almost no risk of cervical cancer.
Getting an HPV vaccine
Vaccines that protect against HPV infection greatly reduce the risk of cervical cancer. These vaccines do not protect women who are already infected with HPV.
Using barrier protection during sexual activity
Some methods used to prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) decrease the risk of HPV infection. The use of a barrier method of birth control, such as a condom, helps protect against HPV infection.
In conclusion, cervical cancer is preventable and early detection is the key. It’s important to know your body inside and out. To do this, keep up with your yearly GYN visits. It is so easy and can truly save your life!
PDQ® Screening and Prevention Editorial Board. PDQ Cervical Cancer Prevention. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/types/cervical/patient/cervical-prevention-pdq. Accessed <01/10/2022>. [PMID: 26389339]