What causes cervical cancer?

Cervical Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

Cervical cancer occurs when cancer begins in the cells of the cervix. With almost 13,000 cases of cervical cancer in the United States each year and over 4,000 deaths from the disease, understanding what causes cervical cancer and how to lower your risk factors is key for prevention.

Cervical Cancer Causes

All cancer begins when normal, healthy cells develop genetic mutations that cause them to grow and replicate at an abnormal rate. When these abnormal cells accumulate, this forms a tumor. When the tumor grows large enough, it will begin to invade nearby organs and tissue, eventually spreading throughout the body.

What causes healthy cells to mutate is not yet known, but for cervical cancer, it is certain that HPV (human papillomavirus) plays a big role. Though there are many different strains of HPV, most cervical cancers are caused by two specific strains of genital HPV. Since these strains usually don’t cause any symptoms, it is very difficult for women to know when they have been infected.

Cervical Cancer Risk Factors

There are several factors that can increase your risk for cervical cancer. These include:

  • Many sexual partners: The more people you have sex with, the greater risk you have to acquiring genital HPV that leads to cervical cancer.
  • Other STIs (sexually transmitted infections): If you have other STIs, such as gonorrhea, HIV/AIDS, chlamydia, or syphilis, this will also increase your risk for contracting HPV.
  • Smoking: Smoking increases your risk for certain types of cervical cancer, such as Squamous cervical cancer.
  • A weak immune system: If you have a condition that causes your immune system to be weakened, you are more likely to get HPV.

Cervical Cancer Prevention

Even though this type of cancer usually won’t produce symptoms until its later stages, it is still highly preventable. There are many things you can do to lower your risk for cervical cancer. These include:

  • Practicing safe sex: Having fewer sexual partners and using a condom during intercourse will reduce your risk of contracting HPV, and in turn, cervical cancer.
  • Avoiding smoking: Since smoking is linked to certain types of cervical cancer, staying away from this activity will decrease your risk for the condition.
  • Getting vaccinated against HPV: There are now vaccinations available for girls as young as 9 years old and for women up to 26 years old. Though the vaccine is most effective if it is given before you become sexually active, it is still highly effective in protecting you against the specific strains of HPV that are known to cause cervical cancer.
  • Having routine Pap tests: It is suggested that women begin receiving yearly Pap tests once they become sexually active, or at least by the time they are 21 years old. Pap tests are able to detect precancerous conditions that might be present in the cervix, which allows doctors to monitor and treat you to prevent the development of cervical cancer. 
Last Updated: January 24, 2017