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Cervical cancer

Overview of cervical cancer

Cervical cancer results from having malignant (cancerous) cells in your cervix, the tissue connecting the uterus and vagina.

Each year in the United States, more than 12,000 women find out they have cervical cancer. Previously, cervical cancer was the top cause of cancer death in American women. That number has sharply decreased over the last four decades however, due to improved screening and increased availability of the HPV vaccine.


Pap smears catch most cervical cancers before symptoms develop. In fact, Pap smears lead to diagnosis of precancerous changes more often than actual cervical cancers. Early detection is lifesaving because symptoms often don’t develop until cancer has grown and invaded surrounding tissues.

The most common symptoms of cervical cancer include:

  • Unusual vaginal discharge
  • Pain with sexual intercourse
  • Pelvic pain
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding after sex, after menopause, or between periods
  • Periods that are longer or heavier than usual

These symptoms are the same as many other gynecologic conditions. See your doctor for an accurate diagnosis.


Cervical cancer almost always results from human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV is a widespread sexually transmitted disease. About 80 percent of the sexually active U.S. population has it at some point in their lives.

Fortunately, there is an effective HPV vaccine, which has reduced the number of new cases. Today, the HPV vaccine makes cervical cancer preventable.

In addition, having HPV does not guarantee that you will have cervical cancer. The majority of women with HPV do not develop cervical cancer.

It is possible to get cervical cancer without contracting HPV, but this is unlikely.


There are three different types of cervical cancer:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma forms in the cervical cells closest to the vagina. This type is the most common and makes up 9 out of 10 cases.
  • Adenocarcinoma starts in the cells closest to the uterus. This type is the second most common.
  • Mixed carcinoma has features of both squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. This type is much less common.

At Dignity Health, our oncologists provide caring treatment. For the services you need, Find a Doctor near you today.

Risk factors

In addition to HPV, there are a few other risk factors for cervical cancer. These factors can increase the risk of developing cervical cancer, especially in people who also have an HPV diagnosis:

  • Having the first full-term pregnancy before the age of 17: The risk of cervical cancer is twice as high for women who are younger at the time of first pregnancy than for women who wait until age 25 or later.
  • Having three or more full-term pregnancies.
  • Long-term use of birth control pills: Though birth control pills can increase your risk, this risk decreases after you stop taking them.
  • Family history of cervical cancer in a close family member like a mother, grandmother, daughter, or aunt.
  • Smoking: Women who smoke have double the risk of cervical cancer.
  • Having a suppressed immune system due to immunosuppressive drugs or HIV.

Lifestyle factors, such as eating a diet low in fruits and vegetables and being overweight, may also increase the risk of cervical cancer.


The easiest way to prevent cervical cancer is to complete the HPV vaccine series, also known as Gardasil.

The HPV vaccine requires several doses given on a timeline, typically beginning at the age of 11 or 12. Although the first dose can be given as late as 25, the vaccine is more effective when given to younger girls. When these steps are completed, the vaccine is almost 100 percent effective against the common HPV infection types responsible for 90 percent of all cases.

You can also reduce your chances of getting HPV by practicing safe sex or abstinence.

Secondly, make sure you attend all your recommended screenings and physical check-ups on schedule.. If you do develop precancerous changes in your cervix, your doctor will often be able to identify these changes before they become invasive cancer.

Other steps you can take to reduce your risk of cervical cancer and other cancers include:

  • Discussing long-term birth control options with your doctor
  • Maintaining a healthy weight and diet, according to your doctor’s recommendations
  • Engaging in regular exercise
  • Not smoking
  • Reducing exposure to environmental toxins and pollution

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.