Reducing Your Risk of Cervical Cancer

A risk factor increases your chance of developing a disease. Risk factors for many diseases have been identified. Some risk factors can be avoided, like smoking. Other risk factors you may have no control over, like genetic predisposition. If you have a certain risk factor, that does not mean that you will definitely get a certain disease. But if it is a controllable risk factor, and you change it, you will reduce your risk. This is true for cervical cancer . There are several risk factors that are modifiable.

Here are some ways to help you reduce your risk of cervical cancer:

  • Talk to your doctor about Pap tests.
  • Practice safe sex.
  • Ask your doctor about the HPV vaccine.
  • Do not smoke.
  • Eat a balanced diet.

Talk to Your Doctor About Pap Tests

Early detection and treatment of precancerous tissue remain the most effective ways of preventing cervical cancer. Since cervical cancer rarely produces symptoms in its early stages, the best way to detect it is to have pelvic exams and Pap tests .

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists offers these guidelines for Pap tests:

  • If you are aged 21-29 years, it is recommended that you have the Pap test every three years.
  • If you are aged 30 or older, you should have a Pap test along with a test to check for the human papillomavirus (HPV) every 5 years. Alternatively, you may have the Pap test alone every three years.
  • If you are aged 65 or older, you may be able to stop having the Pap tests done if you have had normal results for the past three Pap tests and no abnormal results for the past 10 years.

But, you will have to have Pap tests done more often if you have abnormal results or certain conditions, like a suppressed immune system, your mother took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) during pregnancy, or a history of cervical dysplasia or cervical cancer. Talk to your doctor about the right screening schedule for you.

Practice Safe Sex

Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease, is the primary risk factor for cervical cancer. Women who have had multiple sexual partners or who began having sex before the age of 16 are at greater risk of exposure to HPV infection and developing cervical cancer.

To decrease your risk, maintain a monogamous relationship, one in which you are having sex with only your partner and your partner is having sex only with you. Whether or not you are in a monogamous relationship, using a condom every single time you have sexual intercourse will decrease your risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD) and your risk of cervical cancer. Although it is always wise to use a condom to prevent some STDs, a condom will not prevent an HPV infection because the virus can be transmitted by the perineal and perianal contact, and this is not covered by the condom.

Ask Your Doctor About the HPV Vaccine

Two vaccines are available to prevent infection by some (but not all) HPV strains that cause cervical cancer:

  • Gardasil—reduces the risk of:
    • Cervical cancer, as well as cancers of the vagina , vulvar, and anus
    • Precancerous lesions on the genitals
    • Genital warts
  • Cervarix—reduces the risk of cervical cancer and cervical pre-cancer

The vaccine is routinely given to girls as a 3-dose series between the ages of 11-12 years. For the vaccine to be most effective, girls should be vaccinated before their first sexual contact.

If you or your daughter are aged 13-26 years old and did not receive the HPV vaccine, there is a "catch-up" vaccine schedule. Talk to your doctor about it.

Note: To reduce the spread of HPV, this Gardasil vaccine is also recommended for boys.

Do Not Smoke

Smoking exposes your body to many cancer-causing chemicals. Smokers are about twice as likely as nonsmokers to develop cervical cancer. Stopping now will greatly reduce your risk of cervical cancer.

Eat a Balanced Diet

Good nutrition is essential for health and well-being. Women with poor diets may be at an increased risk for cervical cancer. Studies have found an association between diets low in fruits and vegetables and an increased risk of cervical cancer.

Revision Information

  • American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. First cervical cancer screening delayed until age 21 less frequent Pap tests recommended. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists website. Available at: http://www.acog.org. Published November 20, 2009. Accessed November 23, 2009.

  • Baker CJ, Pickerling LK, et al. Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Recommended adult immunization schedule: United States, 2011. Ann Intern Med. 2011;154(3):168-173.

  • Cervarix. GlaxoSmithKline Cervarix website. Available at: http://www.cervarix.com. Accessed December 23, 2009.

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recommended immunization schedules for persons aged 0-18 years—United States, 2011. MMWR. 2011;60(5).

  • Grady D. Guidelines push back age for cervical cancer tests. The New York Times website. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/20/health/20pap.html?%5Fr=1. Published November 20, 2009. Accessed November 23, 2009.

  • National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov.

  • Recommended adult immunization schedule—United States, 2012. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2012;6(4). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/recs/schedules/downloads/adult/mmwr-adult-schedule.pdf. Accessed February 24, 2012.

  • 5/18/2007 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php: The FUTURE II Study Group. Quadrivalent vaccine against human papillomavirus to prevent high-grade cervical lesions. N Engl J Med. 2007;356:1915-1927.

  • 2/5/2013 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php: American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists practice bulletin number 131: Screening for cervical cancer. Obstet Gynecol. 2012;120(5):1222-38.

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