Awareness about cervical cancer has been increasing recently, but the condition is still surprisingly common -- every year, 12,000 women contract it.
The good news: If you're concerned about cervical cancer, there are steps you can take to minimize your risk and keep yourself healthy. Here are seven common cervical cancer risk factors that you can address to reduce your chances of developing this disease.
1. Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
Nearly all new cases of cervical cancer are caused by a strain of HPV. Some types of HPV cause genital warts in men and women, while other strains of the virus don't exhibit any symptoms at all. You can minimize your risk of getting cervical cancer from this virus by getting an HPV test during an annual visit with a gynecologist. If you're younger, consider getting vaccinated: The American Cancer Society recommends women and men between the ages of 11 and 26 obtain an HPV immunization.
2. Multiple Sexual Partners
Because HPV is spread from one person to another by sexual contact, you increase your risk of getting a case of HPV when you have sex with multiple partners, even if you use a condom. While condoms can protect each partner from a variety of sexually transmitted diseases, HPV is not one of them. A condom only prevents skin-to-skin contact over a small area, but the human papillomavirus can infect broad regions of skin across the groin, thighs, and buttocks. You should continue to use a condom, but understand it may not protect against HPV, especially if you have multiple partners.
The negative health effects of smoking are well-known, but many people only associate the habit with lung cancer. But in fact, smoking can cause cancerous cell mutations throughout the body, including the cervix. You can decrease your risk of developing cervical and many other cancers by quitting smoking.
4. Long-Term Use of Birth Control Pills
Researchers aren't sure exactly why the long-term use of birth control pills (defined as more than five years) increases a woman's risk of developing cervical cancer, but there does seem to be a correlation. Talk with your doctor about the risks and benefits of continuing birth control beyond five years, especially if you have other risk factors for cervical cancer. This will enable you to make an informed decision about whether to continue with oral contraceptives or seek an alternative.
If you have HIV/AIDS or take medications that suppress the immune system, then you may face a higher risk of developing cervical cancer. If you take immunosuppressive drugs for an autoimmune disorder or an organ transplant, speak to your doctor about how frequently you should get screened for cervical cancer.
6. Chlamydia Infection
According to the American Cancer Society, women with a current or previous chlamydia infection may be at higher risk of developing cervical cancer. Chlamydia is a common sexually transmitted disease that often produces no symptoms. You can ask your gynecologist for a chlamydia test during a routine annual exam if you suspect you may have this bacterial infection.
7. Lifestyle Factors
Women who don't eat enough fresh vegetables and fruits, as well as women who are obese, may have an elevated lifetime risk of developing cervical cancer. When you eat a healthy diet and maintain a normal body weight, you may reduce your risk of cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is a serious condition that takes the lives of thousands of women each year. You can reduce your risk of developing this disease by understanding what cervical cancer risk factors you have and taking steps to control them the best you can. By adopting a healthy lifestyle and getting an annual pelvic exam, you can feel confident you're doing what you can to prevent cervical cancer.