It is unclear what causes cervical cancer, but it is known that human papillomavirus (HPV) affects your risk. Cervical cancer often develops over several years, and because it has no symptoms in its earliest stages, many people with cervical cancer don’t know they have it.
Cervical cancer has two primary risk factors:
HPV and cervical cancer
More than 90 percent of cervical cancers occur in people with high-risk strains of HPV. HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection, and most people with the virus do not develop cancer. You can request an HPV test during an annual gynecologic exam. If you are diagnosed with high-risk HPV, it is important to follow your doctor’s recommendations for regular screening, often with a Pap test. This test will check for abnormal cells (also called precancer or dysplasia) on the cervix and can prevent cervical cancer from developing.
If you have high-risk HPV, smoking and long-term use of the birth control pill can raise your risk of developing cervical cancer.
Diethylstilbestrol and cervical cancer
Cervical cancer can also develop from exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) in the womb. This was a synthetic form of estrogen prescribed during pregnancy between 1940 and 1971. If you have been exposed to DES, talk to your doctor about your cervical cancer risk.
Cervical cancer prevention
At Penn Medicine's Abramson Cancer Center, we recommend several methods to prevent cervical cancer. Regular screenings, vaccines for preventing the HPV infection, and lifestyle choices can help prevent cervical cancer or help find cervical cancer at an early stage, when it is easiest to treat.
Screening for cervical cancer
When performed regularly (every year or as your gynecologist recommends), pelvic exams, Pap test screening and HPV testing can detect cervical cancer in its early stages. A Pap test examines cells scraped from the cervix during a pelvic exam. Pap tests screen for pre-cancers and cancer, but do not offer the final diagnosis. These tests are important if you are already diagnosed with high-risk HPV.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that screening begins at age 21. Most women younger than 30 should undergo cervical screening once every two years. Women 30 and older with no other risk factors and a history of normal Pap tests can be screened every three years.
The HPV vaccine
Vaccines are now available to protect against high-risk forms of HPV that can cause cervical cancer. Ask your doctor if the HPV vaccine is right for you. It is recommended to people already infected with HPV because it can add protection against additional high-risk forms.
The HPV vaccine protects against a range of HPV-related cancers, including vaginal cancer, anal cancer and throat cancer. It is important to continue to be screened for these cancers after you get the vaccine. Please also note that the vaccine does not treat existing HPV infections, but it can help protect you from other high-risk forms of the virus.
Condoms do not protect completely against HPV because they don't cover all of the potential HPV-infected areas of the body. However, condoms do provide some protection against HPV, and they protect against HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
If you have cervical cancer, we offer a range of leading-edge treatments.
Learn how we treat cervical cancer at Penn Medicine