More than 90 percent of cervical cancers today are caused by infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus so common that more than two-thirds of sexually active women are infected with it at some point.
In part because cervical cancer tends to grow so slowly, there are a number of measures that a woman can take to prevent it from spreading and becoming advanced:
- Have regular Pap smears to screen for any changes in the cells of the cervix.
- Use condoms regularly to protect yourself from getting HPV.
- Discuss HPV vaccination with your doctor.
Other than the presence of genital warts, there is no way of knowing whether a sexual partner is infected with HPV. While condoms do not provide complete protection — HPV can spread through physical contact with infected areas of the mouth, genitalia, and anus — the American Cancer Society reports that using condoms can reduce the rate of HPV infection by about 70 percent. Using condoms regularly also protects against various other sexually transmitted diseases.
The first vaccine approved by the US Food and Drug Administration was Gardasil®. The vaccine specifically targets HPV types 16 and 18, which cause about 70 percent of cervical cancer cases, and types 6 and 11, which cause approximately 90 percent of cases of genital warts. The vaccine can only be used to prevent an HPV infection; it is not meant for women who already are infected.
Additional studies are under way to identify vaccines that target other types of HPV linked to cervical cancer, help the immune systems of men and women already infected with HPV to destroy the virus, and aid women with advanced or recurrent cervical cancer.
Other Risk Factors
In addition to infection with the HPV virus, factors that increase the risk for cervical cancer include:
- Having first sexual intercourse at an early age
- Having many sexual partners
- Giving birth to three or more children
- Smoking cigarettes (this produces chemicals that can damage cervical cells)
- Using oral contraceptives
- Being infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS
Women without HPV infection or any of these other risk factors rarely develop cervical cancer.
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