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What is Cervical Cancer?

We have heard a lot in the news recently about cervical cancer due to the great news of the FDA approval of a new vaccine to prevent HPV, the causative agent of cervical cancer. This will help make great strides in the future reduction of cervical cancer incidence, and when used with ongoing cervical testing with Pap smear and HPV tests, has the potential to eliminate cervical cancer deaths in the US in our lifetime. However, women still need to know what cervical cancer is, what the risk factors are, and what kind of screening they need to prevent cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is a cancer of the cervix, or outer entrance to the uterus (womb). It develops slowly, long after abnormal or "dysplastic" changes may be detected in the cervical cells. Worldwide, cervical cancer affects 450,000 women per year and it is the third most common cancer to affect women in the world (after skin cancer and breast cancer).

Fortunately, a probable cause has been identified. Recent medical studies have confirmed that the human papilloma virus (HPV) is associated with most cases of cervical cancer. HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the US, and a majority of sexually active women are exposed to it at some point in their lives. Only a small percent of women with HPV will develop cervical cancer, however, in most women, immunity will control the virus. There are now known to be 100 different strains of HPV, but of these, only 13 strains are associated with cervical cancer. Only women with persistent HPV infection with one of those 13 strains are at increased risk of developing cervical cancer. Ask your health care provider about whether or not you should be tested for this virus.with the HPV test at the same time as your Pap smear. This test is recommended for women over age 30, or younger women who may have had indeterminate results on their Pap smears.

HPV is also the virus that causes genital warts. Because this virus is sexually transmitted, cervical cancer can be considered a sexually transmitted disease, as well as a cancer. However, there are cases in which women who have never had sexual intercourse have still developed cervical cancer. A recent study from Sweden demonstrates that genetics may play a much larger role in the cause of cervical cancer than previously suspected.

Risk Factors for Cervical Cancer

  • history of HPV infection
  • history of venereal warts, herpes simplex or any STD
  • history of previous abnormal pap smears
  • smoking, or abusing other substances, including alcohol
  • having a mother who took the drug DES (diethylstilbestrol) during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage (1940-1970)
  • having impaired immune system function
  • having had more than 2 male sexual partners in the past without condom use (or having had a partner with a history of more than 2 sexual partners)
  • having a male sexual partner who has had a sexual partner with cervical cancer
  • family history of cervical cancer
  • lower socioeconomic status
  • history of lower genital tract dysplasia or cancer
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     Worldwide, cervical cancer affects 450,000 women per year and it is the third most common cancer to affect women in the world (after skin cancer and breast cancer) 

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