Cervical Cancer Awareness

Risk Factors

A risk factor is anything that changes your chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Having a risk factor, or even several, does not mean that you will get the disease.

Here are the biggest risk factors for cervical cancer:

Human papilloma virus infection: The most important risk factor for cervical cancer is infection by the human papilloma virus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection that can cause warts in the genital area.

Smoking: Women who smoke are about twice as likely as non-smokers to get cervical cancer. Smoking exposes the body to many cancer-causing chemicals that affect organs other than the lungs. These harmful substances are absorbed through the lungs and carried in the bloodstream throughout the body. Tobacco by-products have been found in the cervical mucus of women who smoke.

Immunosuppression: Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS, damages the body's immune system and places women at higher risk for HPV infections. This may explain the increased risk of cervical cancer for women with AIDS.

Chlamydia infection: Chlamydia is a relatively common kind of bacteria that can infect the reproductive system. It is spread by sexual contact. Chlamydia infection can cause pelvic inflammation, leading to infertility. Some studies have seen a higher risk of cervical cancer in women whose blood test results show evidence of past or current chlamydia infection (compared with women who have normal test results).

Diet: Diets low in fruits and vegetables are associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer and several other cancers. Also overweight women are more likely to develop adenocarcinoma of the cervix.

Oral contraceptives (birth control pills): There is evidence that taking oral contraceptives for a long time increases the risk of cervical cancer. Research suggests the risk goes up the longer a woman takes oral contraceptives, but goes back down after stopping the pill. The American Cancer Society suggests that women discuss with their doctor whether the benefits of using oral contraceptives outweigh the potential risks.

Intrauterine device use: A recent study found that women who had ever used an intrauterine device (IUD) had a lower risk of cervical cancer. The effect on risk was seen even in women who had an IUD for less than a year, and the protective effect remained after the IUDs were removed.

Multiple full-term pregnancies: Women who have had 3 or more full-term pregnancies have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer. No one really knows why this is true.

Young age at the first full-term pregnancy: Women who were younger than 17 years when they had their first full-term pregnancy are almost 2 times more likely to get cervical cancer later in life than women who waited to get pregnant until they were 25 years or older.

Poverty: Poverty is also a risk factor for cervical cancer. Many women with low incomes do not have ready access to adequate health care services, including Pap tests. This means they may not get screened or treated for cervical pre-cancers.

Diethylstilbestrol (DES): DES is a hormonal drug that was prescribed between 1940 and 1971 for some women thought to be at increased risk for miscarriages. Women whose mothers took DES (when pregnant with them) develop clear-cell adenocarcinoma of the vagina or cervix more often than would normally be expected. This type of cancer is extremely rare in non-DES exposed women. There is about 1 case of this type of cancer in every 1,000 women whose mothers took DES during pregnancy. This means that about 99.9% of "DES daughters" do not develop these cancers.

Family history of cervical cancer: Cervical cancer may run in some families. If your mother or sister had cervical cancer, your chances of developing the disease are 2 to 3 times higher than if no one in the family had it.

Source: American Cancer Society's What are the risk factors for cervical cancer? webpage.

back to top