The cervix is in the bottom part of the uterus (or womb, where a baby grows). It joins the uterus to the vagina (birth canal).
Most women who develop cervical cancer are between 20 and 50 years old. It used to be one of the main causes of death from cancer in the United States, but the widespread use of the Pap test has helped doctors find cervical cancer in the early stages. Cervical cancer often can be treated successfully when it is caught and treated early.
Before cervical cancer appears, the cells of the cervix go through precancerous changes, known as dysplasia. Usually this is a slow process that develops over many years.
An annual Pap test looks for these changes. If precancerous cells are found, they often can be removed.
Did You Know?
The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 12,000 women are diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer (cancer that has spread outside the cervix) each year. It's one of the main cancers of the female reproductive organs.
Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), which usually is passed from person to person by sexual contact. The average person's lifetime risk of contracting HPV is about 80%.
In most people, the immune system clears the virus before it is detected or causes cells to change. However, in a small percentage of people the virus will remain and cause cell changes that may develop into cancer.
Cervical Cancer Types
Cervical cancer is usually one of the following types, which are named for the type of cell where they develop. The most common types of cervical cancer are:
Squamous cell carcinoma (cancer): This is the main type of cervical cancer and is found in 80% to 90% of cases. It develops in the lining of the cervix.
Adenocarcinoma develops in gland cells that produce cervical mucus. About 10% to 20% of cervical cancers are adenocarcinomas.
Mixed carcinoma (cancer): Occasionally, cervical cancer has features of squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma.
In rare instances, other types of cancer, such as neuroendocrine (small and large cell cervical cancer), melanoma, sarcoma and lymphoma, are found in the cervix.
Cervical Cancer Risk Factors
Anything that increases your chance of getting cervical cancer is a risk factor.
HPV is spread by sexual contact and is the cause of almost all cases of cervical cancer, as well as many vaginal and vulvar cancers. HPV may cause the cells in the cervix to change. If abnormal cells are not found and treated, they may become cancer.
As many as 80% of men and women who have had sex have HPV. Usually the body’s immune system handles the virus, and most people never know they have it. While most women with HPV will not get cervical cancer, you should be aware of the risk and have regular Pap tests.
Cervical cancer risk factors include:
- Age: The risk of cervical cancer increases with age. It is found most often in women over the age of 40. However, younger women often have precancerous lesions that require treatment to prevent cancer.
- Smoking: Cigarette smoke contains chemicals that damage the body's cells. It increases the risk of precancerous changes in the cervix, especially in women with HPV.
- Sexual behavior: Certain types of sexual activity may increase the risk of getting HPV infection. These include: 1) Multiple sexual partners, 2) high-risk male partners, 3) first intercourse at an early age and 4) not using condoms during sex.
Other cervical cancer risk factors include:
- Lack of regular Pap tests
- Having a sexually transmitted disease (STD), including chlamydia
- Diethylstilbestrol (DES) exposure before birth: This drug was used between 1940 and 1971 to help women not have miscarriages. Women whose mothers took DES during pregnancy have a high risk of vaginal and cervical cancers.
- HIV infection
- Weakened immune system: Having an organ transplant or taking steroids raise your risk
- Being overweight or not eating a healthy diet
Not everyone with risk factors get cervical cancer. However, if you have risk factors it’s a good idea to discuss them with your health care provider.
Some people have an elevated risk of developing cervical cancer. Review the cervical cancer screening guidelines to see if you need to be tested.
Behavioral and lifestyle changes can help prevent cervical cancer. Visit our prevention and screening section to learn how to manage your risk.
In rare cases, cervical cancer can be passed down from one generation to the next. Genetic counseling may be right for you. Visit our genetic testing page to learn more.