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Are You At Risk for Cervical Cancer?

Photo of a woman holding a cigarette
Smoking is one risk factor for cervical cancer.

There is really no way to know for sure if you're going to get cervical cancer. Certain factors can make you more likely to get cervical cancer than another woman. These are called risk factors. However, just because you have one or more risk factors does not mean you will get cervical cancer. In fact, you can have all the risk factors and still not get cervical cancer. With cervical cancer, it is rare to get the disease if you have no known risk factors, but it is possible.

These are the main risk factors for cervical cancer:

  • Not getting screened with a Pap test as recommended by your doctor 

  • High-risk human papillomaviruses (HPV), a type of infection spread through sex

  • Smoking

  • HIV infection or a weak immune system

Some risk factors are out of your control, such as your family history or already having HPV. However, other factors, such as getting regular screenings and doing what you can to prevent high-risk HPV, are ones you can control.

In fact, when it comes to cervical cancer, you can have a good deal of influence over many of the most potent risk factors. Experts have evidence that cervical cancer is highly preventable and curable when you work with your health care team. Ask your doctors and your loved ones to help you think of ways that you can succeed to lower your risk of cervical cancer.

If you agree with any of the following bolded statements, you may be at an increased risk for cervical cancer. Each time you agree with a statement below, ask yourself if you are doing all you can to control that risk factor. It may seem difficult, but your efforts can have a big payoff in terms of your health and quality of life.

I have high-risk HPV.

HPV is short for human papillomavirus. It is the most common cause of cervical cancer. An HPV infection is usually harmless and temporary. Anyone who has had sex, both men and women, can get an HPV infection. It is estimated that at least 50 percent of sexually active men and women acquire genital HPV infection at some point in their lives.

Most people with HPV never know they are infected because the virus tends to go away on its own. There are many types of this virus. Only a few high-risk types can cause cervical cancer. The only way to tell if you have a high-risk type of HPV is to be tested.

These facts will help you gain a basic understanding of HPV:

  • Both men and women can get HPV.

  • There are more than 100 different types of HPV.

  • About 10 to 30 types of HPV can lead to cervical cancer. These include HPV 16, HPV 18, HPV 31, HPV 33, and HPV 45. HPV 16 and 18 cause about half of all cervical cancers.

If high-risk types of HPV do not go away on their own, they may lead to cervical cancer.

I've had sexual intercourse at a young age or with multiple partners, or I don't use protection during sex.

You are at increased risk. You get high-risk HPV by having sex with someone who has the virus. Just because someone doesn't have any symptoms doesn't mean he or she does not have HPV. Many people have it and don't even know it. The only sure way to protect yourself is to not have sex at all or to have sex only with a partner who you know does not have HPV. Condoms do not protect you from HPV. But condom use is still very important. Condoms help protect against other sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV and chlamydia. Some research has linked chlamydia to an increase in the risk of cervical cancer.

I smoke.

If you smoke, you have a higher risk of getting cervical cancer. You are twice as likely to get cervical cancer as women who do not smoke. Chemicals in cigarettes end up in your bloodstream and in the mucus in your cervix.

I have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, or have a weak immune system.

Women with an HIV infection also have a weakened immune system. If you have HIV, it is harder for you to get rid of a high-risk HPV infection. Therefore, you have a higher risk of developing cervical disease or cervical cancer. Taking drugs that suppress the immune system increases the risk of cervical cancer.

Other risk factors

A few other factors have been linked to cervical cancer. If you agree with any of the statements below, ask yourself if you are doing all you can to control that risk factor.

  • I have had cervical cancer before. If you've had cervical cancer before, you have a higher chance of getting cervical cancer again.

  • My mother or sister has had cervical cancer. Some studies show that if you have a mother or sister who has had cervical cancer, this increases your risk for the disease.

  • I have had a recent or past chlamydia infection. You can become infected with these bacteria during sex. Some studies show a link between chlamydia and cervical cancer. More studies are needed to confirm this.

  • I don't eat many fruits and vegetables, especially foods with carotene and vitamins A, C, and E. These foods can help lower your risk of cervical cancer.

  • I am overweight. Some studies have shown that women who are overweight have a greater chance of getting cervical cancer.

  • I use oral contraceptives, also called birth control pills. Some research has shown that if you take birth control pills for more than five years, you may have an increased risk of cervical cancer. The increased risk is small, however. Also, some women reap benefits from taking oral contraceptives. Therefore, it's best to discuss your personal risks and benefits with your doctor or nurse when deciding about oral contraceptives.

  • I have given birth to several children. If you have had many full-term pregnancies (five or more), you may have a greater chance of getting cervical cancer.

  • My mother took the drug Diethylstilbestrol (DES) when she was pregnant with me. Between the years 1940 and 1971, doctors sometimes prescribed this drug to women who had trouble with miscarriages. Of the women whose mothers took DES, the majority do not get cervical cancer. Even so, you are at higher risk for cervical cancer if your mother took DES while pregnant with you.

  • I can't afford health care. Poor women tend to be at higher risk for cervical cancer. Health experts believe that this is because they often do not have access to good health care and screenings and also may not be able to afford a well-balanced diet. Programs for low-cost or free screenings do exist. Ask someone at your local health care clinic how to enroll in these programs.


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