What is a risk factor?
It isn’t always clear why a person gets cancer. But experts know that certain risk factors can raise your odds. Learning about your personal risk factors for cervical cancer can go a long way in protecting your future health. Here’s what you should know.
A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of having a disease. Some risk factors, such as family history, you can’t control. But you may be able to change others, like smoking or an unhealthy diet. Knowing the risk factors can help you make choices that might lower your risk.
Keep in mind that risk factors don’t cause cancer. They just increase your risk. Some people have 1 or more risk factors but never get cancer. Others have no risk factors, but they get cancer anyway. Not all risk factors are well-known. Research about them is ongoing.
Who is at risk for cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer occurs in the cervix, which is part of the female reproductive system. Most cases of cervical cancer occur in women between ages 20 and 50.
The most common cause of cervical cancer is human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Often, these infections are harmless and go away on their own. Most people never know they are infected.
There are more than 150 types of HPV, but only about 13 are linked to cervical cancer. The only way to tell if you have a high-risk type of HPV is to be tested.
You get high-risk HPV by having sex with someone who has the virus. Using condoms is important. They help protect you from sexually transmitted infections such as HIV, genital herpes, and chlamydia—diseases that put you at higher risk for cervical cancer. But condoms don't fully protect against HPV.
Having sex at a young age or with multiple partners puts you at increased risk for cervical cancer, likely because it increases your risk for HPV exposure. The only sure way to protect yourself is to not have sex, or to have sex only with a partner you are certain doesn’t have HPV.
Other risk factors
Here are some other risk factors for cervical cancer:
Personal or family history of cervical cancer. Some studies show that having a mother or sister who has had cervical cancer increases your risk for the disease. And if you have had cervical cancer before, you have a higher chance of getting it again.
A weak immune system. Having HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) or taking medicines that weaken the immune system makes it hard to fight off HPV infections.
Long-term use of birth control pills. Your risk may go down after you stop taking the pills. This may be because women who use birth control pills are less likely to use condoms.
Some pregnancies. Women who have 3 or more full-term pregnancies are at increased risk for cervical cancer. So are women who had their first full-term pregnancy when they were younger than 20. Those women are more likely to have cervical cancer later when compared with women who had their first full-term pregnancy when they were over 25 years old.
A mother who took DES while pregnant with you. Between the years 1938 and 1971, doctors sometimes prescribed the medicine diethylstilbestrol (DES) to women to prevent miscarriages. Most women whose mothers took DES don’t get cervical cancer. But you’re still at risk for an unusual type of cervical cancer called clear cell carcinoma if your mother took DES while pregnant with you.
Eating well is one way you can help prevent cervical cancer. A diet low in fruits and vegetables is a risk factor, especially when you don’t get enough carotene and vitamins A, C, and E. Plus, a healthy diet can help you maintain the weight that’s right for you. Some studies have shown that women who are overweight have a greater chance of getting cervical cancer.
Another important way to prevent cervical cancer is not smoking. If you smoke, you are about twice as likely to get cervical cancer as women who don’t smoke. Why? The chemicals in cigarettes end up in your bloodstream and in the mucus in your cervix. Smoking also weakens the immune system, making you less able to fight HPV infections.
What are your risk factors?
Talk with your healthcare provider about your risk factors for cervical cancer and what you can do about them.
Provider visits and other preventive care are crucial. Make screening a priority. Women who don’t get screened for cervical cancer with Pap and HPV tests as recommended have a higher risk for cervical cancer. If you don’t have health insurance, there are programs for low-cost or free screenings. Ask your local healthcare clinic about these programs.