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The Basics of Cervical Cancer

Cervical Cancer Risks

All women are at risk for developing the disease, but several factors can increase a woman's risk of developing cervical cancer, according to the American Cancer Society:

  • Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S. (Most women and men who have been sexually active have been exposed to the HPV virus, which is spread through skin-to-skin contact with an HPV-infected area. However, certain types of sexual behavior increase a woman's risk of getting an HPV infection, such as having sex at an early age, having many sexual partners and having unprotected sex at any age.)
Recent studies find that using condoms cannot completely protect against HPV because the virus is passed by way of skin-to-skin contact, including the skin in the genital area that may not be covered by a condom. Correct and consistent condom use is still important, however, to protect against AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Smoking cigarettes, which exposes the body to cancer-causing chemicals absorbed initially by the lungs but then carried in the bloodstream throughout the body. The chemicals produced by tobacco smoke may damage the DNA in cells of the cervix and make cancer more likely to occur there.
  • Infection with chlamydia bacteria, which is spread by sexual contact and may or may not cause symptoms. Researchers don't know exactly why chlamydia infection increases cervical cancer risk, but they think it might be because active immune system cells at the site of a chlamydia infection might damage normal cells and cause them to turn cancerous.
  • A diet low in fruits and vegetables. Women who don't eat many fruits and vegetables miss out on the protective antioxidants and phytochemicals such as vitamins A, C, E and beta-carotene, which have all been shown to help prevent cervical cancer and other forms of cancer.
  • A compromised immune system related to certain illnesses such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection. Being HIV positive makes a woman's immune system less able to fight cancers such as cervical cancer.
  • A family history of cervical cancer — if your mother or sister had cervical cancer — may mean you have a genetic tendency for the disease. This could be because such women are genetically less able to fight off HPV infection than other women.
  • Exposure in utero to diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic hormone that was prescribed to pregnant women between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriages. For every 1,000 women whose mother took DES when she was pregnant, about one develops clear-cell adenocarcinoma (cancer) of the vagina or cervix. For more information on DES exposure, contact the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), toll-free: 1-888-232-6789, or online at
  • Long-term oral contraceptive (OC) use (five or more years) may very slightly increase a woman's risk of cancer of the cervix, according to some statistical evidence. The American Cancer Society advises women to discuss the benefits of OC use versus this very slight potential risk with their health care professionals.

More than twice as many African-American women die from cervical cancer as Caucasian women. Additionally, Hispanic women and Native-American women have higher rates of cervical cancer than Caucasian women. Rates of cervical cancer are also increasing among Vietnamese women. Lack of access to health services (and therefore, less screening), cultural influences and diagnosis of cancer at more advanced stages are all possible reasons for these differences.