What you need to know: Cervical Cancer Awareness Month

FIT Staff
Jan 15, 2014

Women can take a variety of steps to avoid cervical cancer or to spot the disease early when it's highly treatable.

Cervical cancer usually doesn’t cause symptoms until its later stages. That’s why it’s so important to spot it early — and take steps to stop it from ever starting.

What puts you at risk for cervical cancer?

Like most cancers, one of the risk factors for developing cervical cancer is smoking.

Unlike other cancers, however, the biggest risk factor for cancer of the cervix is a virus.

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is spread through sexual contact. Infection is extremely common, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent, and most people who have sex will get HPV at some time in their lives.

Of the multiple strains of HPV, only a small number have been linked to the cell changes associated with cervical cancer. But nearly all cases of cervical cancer are linked to infection with HPV, says the CDC.

You’re more likely to get HPV if you:

Begin having sex at an early age.

* Have sex with multiple partners.

* Have sex with people who have had multiple partners.

* Have sex with men who aren’t circumcised.

Women who don’t get regular Pap tests also are at increased risk for cervical cancer, according to the CDC.

According to the National Cancer Institute, additional risk factors include giving birth to seven or more children and using birth control pills for five years or longer.

What you can do:

* Lower your risk for HPV infection. The only sure way to avoid HPV is to abstain from sex, notes the CDC. If you do have sex; however, being in a monogamous relationship can reduce your risk for disease. Using a condom every time you have sex also may help.

* Get regular pap tests. Pap screenings can spot cervical cancer in its earliest stages, When treatment is most effective, the test can also alert you to cell changes that could develop into cancer later. Ask your doctor how often you should have one.

* Ask about HPV testing. Although it isn’t recommended for everyone, women can be tested specifically for HPV. Ask your doctor if it’s appropriate for you.

* Get the HPV vaccine. Women and girls from 9 to 26 years old can be vaccinated against four strains of HPV, including two strains believed responsible for most cases of cervical cancer. For best protection, health experts recommend the vaccine be given to girls before they become sexually active.

Don’t smoke.

* Smoking increases your risk for cervical cancer, according to the NCI.

Talk with your doctor

Keep in mind that most strains of HPV don’t cause cervical cancer.

* Ask your doctor about the HPV vaccine.

* The infection is far more likely to go away on its own without causing any health problems than to lead to serious disease.

Bottom Line: Talk to your doctor if you think you might have been exposed to the virus — or if it’s time for you to schedule a pap test.