Cervical Cancer Risk Factors and Symptoms

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Cervical cancer used to be one of the most common causes of cancer death for women in the United States. However, over the last 40 years, cervical cancer deaths have decreased dramatically due to women getting regular screenings.1

Understanding your risks and identifying symptoms are some of the best ways to prevent cervical cancer from developing.

Who is at risk for cervical cancer? 

While certain factors can put you at greater risk for developing cervical cancer, having one or many risk factors does not mean you are guaranteed to get the disease.

Check out a few of the most common risk factors for developing cervical cancer below. 

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. This is the most important risk factor for cervical cancer. High-risk HPV strains are linked to cancer such as cervical cancer, penile cancer and mouth cancer, among others. While HPV infection is common (about 80 percent of sexually active men and women will be infected at some point)4, most immune systems can clear the infection by itself. However, if the infection does not clear on its own, it becomes chronic — eventually developing into cancer, like cervical cancer.2
  • Lack of cervical cancer screenings. Routine cervical cancer screenings can detect abnormal cell changes in the cervix that HPV may cause before it is too late. However, if these abnormalities are not detected and treated, it can eventually become cancerous. That is why routine Pap tests are strongly recommended for women starting at 21 years old.2

Eligible Compass Rose Health Plan members receive an annual well-woman visit FREE when seeing a network provider. Plus, eligible members can earn 100 wellness reward points for receiving your cervical cancer screening. 

  • Sexual history. Because HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases, it can be difficult to limit your exposure. People with many sexual partners or high-risk partners may be at greater risk of developing cervical cancer. However, with regular Pap and HPV testing, your provider will be able to detect any abnormalities that an HPV infection may cause.2
  • Smoking. Women who smoke are almost twice as likely to develop cervical cancer than non-smokers. Harmful tobacco by-products have been found in the cervical mucus of women who smoke, leading researchers to believe these substances can change the DNA of cervix cells, contributing to cancer growth.2
  • Weakened immune system. The immune system plays a critical role in destroying cancer cells and slowing the spread throughout the body. If you have an autoimmune disease or another disease that weakens the immune system, like human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), you could be at greater risk.2
  • Long-term oral birth control use. Evidence suggests there is a correlation between how long a woman has been taking oral contraceptives and her increased risk of cervical cancer. You should speak with your doctor to determine whether the benefits of oral birth control outweigh the risks.2
  • Family history. Like with many other types of cancers, your risk for developing cervical cancer increases if it runs in your family. Some researchers believe this is because of an inherited condition that makes women less able to fight off HPV infection than others.2
  • Age. Cervical cancer tends to occur during midlife, most frequently diagnosed in women between 35 and 44 years old.3 That is why routine screenings starting at age 21 are strongly encouraged. 

No matter how at-risk you may be, the most important thing for every woman is to get regular cervical cancer screenings to prevent cancer from developing. Learn more about cervical cancer risk factors on our cervical cancer resource hub

What are the signs of cervical cancer? 

Depending on the stage of cervical cancer, there are different signs and symptoms you may experience.

Pre-cancer or early-stage cancer: Precancerous cell changes in the cervix generally do not have any symptoms.4 However, if these conditions are not treated, there is a chance they develop into more advanced cervical cancer. That is why regular screening is critical for early detection — an abnormal Pap test is often the first sign of possible pre-cancerous growths.6

Advanced cancer: In more advanced stages of cervical cancer, women may experience weight loss, fatigue, spotting between periods, bleeding after intercourse, increased vaginal discharge, pain during intercourse or unexplained pelvic pain.4 At this stage, cancer may spread (metastasize) within the pelvis to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

If you have any symptoms that concern you, consult with your doctor. 

What are the next steps? 

If you are concerned about your risk factors, getting regular cervical cancer screenings is the best way to detect any abnormalities early. Screenings can be performed at your obstetrician-gynecologist office or at your primary care providers’ office if they offer that service. Use our Find a Doctor tool to find a provider near you. 

To learn more about cervical cancer prevention, our post 5 Tips to Prevent Cervical Cancer, can show you the best ways to reduce your risks and stay on top of early detection. 

Sources

1 Cervical Cancer Statistics (2019, May). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/statistics/
2 Risk Factors for Cervical Cancer (2020, January). American Cancer Society: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cervical-cancer/causes-risks-prevention/risk-factors.html
3 Cervical Cancer Overview. National Cervical Cancer Coalition: https://www.nccc-online.org/hpvcervical-cancer/cervical-cancer-overview/
4 Cervical Cancer: Symptoms and Signs (2019, February). Cancer.Net: https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/cervical-cancer/symptoms-and-signs
5 HPV (Human Papillomavirus) (2018, September). Cleveland Clinic: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/11901-hpv-human-papilloma-virus
6 Precancerous conditions of the cervix. Canadian Cancer Society: https://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-type/cervical/cervical-cancer/precancerous-conditions/?region=qc
7 Cervical Cancer Symptoms. Cancer Treatment Centers of America: https://www.cancercenter.com/cancer-types/cervical-cancer/symptoms