5 things to know about the risks of cervical cancer

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Just as regular check-ups and screenings can help you detect health issues as early as possible, knowing your risk factors can do the same.

When it comes to cervical cancer, there are some risk factors to take note of. By talking to your healthcare provider about which risk factors apply to you, you can work together to monitor your cervical health.

1. The HPV vaccine is your best defense against cervical cancer

There are low-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV) that aren't frequently linked to cancer. However, there are high-risk types of HPV, which are linked to many cancers, including cervical cancer.

"While HPV infections are common—and the body typically fights the infection on its own—in some women, the infection can become chronic. The combination of a chronic infection and a high-risk type of HPV can eventually lead to cancer," says David O. Holtz, MD, chief of gynecologic oncology at Main Line Health.

There isn't currently a cure for HPV infection. However, there are treatments for the abnormal cell growth that HPV can cause. That's why screening tests like Pap smears and HPV tests are so important.

You can get a Pap smear and an HPV test at the same time. Talk with your primary care doctor about when you should start having HPV tests and how often. HPV tests, for those above the age of 30 at average risk, can be safely done every 5 years. Your doctor may recommend every 3 years between the ages of 21 and 29.

You can also talk with your doctor about HPV vaccines that can help prevent HPV infection and, as a result, certain cancers.

2. Women who smoke are twice as likely to develop cervical cancer compared to those who don't

Harmful substances from tobacco are absorbed through the lungs and travel to the rest of the body through the bloodstream. By-products of tobacco can damage the DNA of cervical cells and smoking weakens the ability to fight HPV infection.

All these reasons make smoking a risk factor for developing cervical cancer. Smoking is harmful to your body in many ways, including your cervical health. The best way to keep your body and cervix healthy is to not smoke. This includes traditional cigarettes and vaping.

If you want to commit to a smoke-free life, Main Line Health Smoking Cessation program can provide you with resources and support on your journey to quit smoking.

3. Certain pregnancy-related factors may put you at a higher risk of cervical cancer

It's important to note that pregnancy itself doesn't cause cervical cancer. However, both having more than two having more than two full-term pregnancies and being younger than 20 years old at your first full-term pregnancy may put you at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer.

There are a few possible reasons for this correlation:

  • Hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy may make you more susceptible to HPV infection.
  • Pregnancy lowers your immune system, which may allow an HPV infection to develop.

"Developing HPV or cervical dysplasia does not affect the pregnancy timing or route of delivery, and it has no effect on the baby," says Dr. Holtz.

Regular prenatal screenings are key to a healthy pregnancy. While not all pregnant women are routinely tested for HPV, remember that Pap tests and HPV tests can both be done at the same time to see if you have a type of HPV that can cause cervical cancer.

What's most important to note here is that, oftentimes women who have limited contact with healthcare only get the regular care they need while they're pregnant. Because of this, abnormalities like HPV may only be detected during pregnancy.

"It's extremely important that any abnormalities, no matter when they are detected, are followed up on and treated properly," says Dr. Holtz.

4. Certain sexual activity factors can increase the risk of cervical cancer

It's important to note that sexual activity by itself doesn't cause cancer. However, there are a few sex-related risk factors that can increase your risk of developing cervical cancer, including:

  • Becoming sexually active at a younger age (especially in your teenage years)
  • Having at least one sexual partner who is considered high-risk

Any sexual contact—including oral sex, penetrant sex, genital rubbing and shared sex toys—can result in HPV infection, which increases your risk of cervical cancer. Practicing safe sex by using protection and having open conversations about your and your partner's past sexual activity can help you reduce your risk of an HPV infection.

5. You can take action to lower your risk of cervical cancer

There are several ways you can lower your risk, including:

  • Getting the HPV vaccine.
  • Keeping up with regular screenings, such as Pap tests and HPV tests.

Talk to your healthcare provider about each of the ways to support your cervical health. Together, you can create a plan to reduce your risk of cervical cancer.

Next steps:

Read more about gynecologic oncology specialist David O. Holtz, MD
Learn more about cervical cancer care at Main Line Health
After an abnormal Pap screening, what comes next?