Worldwide, cervical cancer is the third most common type of cancer in women. It is much less common in the United States because of the routine use of Pap smears.
Cervical cancer starts in the cells on the surface of the cervix. There are two types of cells on the surface of the cervix, squamous and columnar. Most cervical cancers are from squamous cells.
Cervical cancer usually develops slowly. It starts as a precancerous condition called dysplasia. This condition can be detected by a Pap smear and is 100% treatable. It can take years for dysplasia to develop into cervical cancer. Most women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer today have not had regular Pap smears, or they have not followed up on abnormal Pap smear results.
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV (human papillomavirus). HPV is a common virus that is spread through sexual intercourse. There are many different types (strains) of HPV. Some strains lead to cervical cancer. Other strains can cause genital warts. Others do not cause any problems at all.
A woman's sexual habits and patterns can increase her risk of developing cervical cancer. Risky sexual practices include:
- Having sex at an early age
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Having a partner or many partners who take part in high-risk sexual activities
Other risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- Not getting the HPV vaccine
- Being economically disadvantaged
- Having a mother who took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) during pregnancy in the early 1960s to prevent miscarriage
- Having a weakened immune system