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What Causes Cervical Cancer? Plus 3 Ways to Prevent It

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With lots of cancers, we never know the exact cause.

But that’s not true for cervical cancer. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by one thing: a pesky virus known as HPV. Knowing the cause means we also know how to keep cervical cancer from developing.   

Take control this Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. Learn how cervical cancer happens and 3 ways you can prevent it.

What Is Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer happens when cells inside your cervix become abnormal and grow into a tumor.

The cervix is the doorway between your birth canal (vagina) and womb (uterus). Like a powerful gatekeeper, the cervix opens and closes to make pregnancy and childbirth possible.

In 2023 in the U.S., almost 14,000 people were diagnosed with cervical cancer. And about another 200,000 people were diagnosed with cervical precancers.

What Causes Cervical Cancer?

The human papillomavirus (HPV) causes about 90% of all cervical cancers.

“Infection with HPV is extremely common. Because a healthy immune system can clear the infection, most of us will never know we’ve had an HPV infection,” says Kari Ring, MD, a UVA Health gynecologic oncologist who specializes in treating cervical cancer.

But some of us can’t clear the HPV infection. And over time, this infection can impair the cells in the cervix, eventually leading to cancer. That’s why you’ll want to know how to prevent it.

3 Ways to Prevent Cervical Cancer

Don’t Smoke

“Patients who smoke or are immune deficient are not able to clear HPV infections as effectively as other people. This puts them at greater risk for cervical cancer,” Ring says.

Get an HPV Vaccine

“The HPV vaccine is approved for people up to age 45 who were not vaccinated as children,” Ring says.

Plus, parents can protect their children from several HPV-caused cancers by getting their children vaccinated between ages 9 and 12, as recommended. Why so young? You want to protect them before they become sexually active. HPV spreads mostly through intimate contact.

Take Action to Prevent Cervical Cancer

Pap smears, HPV tests, and HPV vaccines are all available at UVA Health.

Get a Pap Test

A Pap test is how we screen for cervical cancer. But even better, this test can uncover precancerous cells in the cervix. And a doctor can remove these cells so cancer never has a chance to form.

At the same annual checkup, you can combine a Pap test with an HPV test. Talk with your primary care provider about the best screening options for you and how often you need to get screened.

Vaccines are amazing lifesavers too. But they’re never 100% effective at preventing a cancer-causing virus infection. So cervical cancer screening is still important.

Don’t Ignore This Cervical Cancer Sign

Abnormal vaginal bleeding is the most common symptom of cervical cancer.

“And bleeding can occur outside of a normal period or after sexual intercourse,” Ring notes.

If this happens, tell your doctor right away.

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