Preventing Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer begins in the cervix, which is the small, neck-like opening at the bottom of the uterus. The cervix connects the uterus to the vagina, which is the canal of muscular tissue leading to the outside of the body.

Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable and treatable cancers. Doctors at NYU Langone's Perlmutter Cancer Center recommend several ways to reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer, including vaccination against human papillomavirus (HPV) which is a group of viruses transmitted through sexual contact, some of which can cause cervical cancer. Practicing safer sex, avoiding smoking, and being screened regularly for precancerous changes in the cervix also help to prevent this form of cancer.

Human Papillomavirus Vaccination

Nearly all the changes in cervical cells that lead to cancer are caused by HPV infection. There are more than 150 types of HPV, and they are usually spread through skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, oral, or anal sex.

Some types of HPV—for instance, HPV 6 and HPV 11—are considered low risk, because they do not cause cervical cancer but can cause genital warts. High-risk strains of the virus—HPV 16 and HPV 18, among others—can cause cervical cancer, as well as cancers of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus, and oropharynx.

HPV is common; about 14 million Americans become infected each year. Nearly all sexually active women are infected with some type of HPV during their lives. Many experience no symptoms, because the immune system rids the body of the virus within one or two years of infection.

Over time, HPV infection may cause abnormal, potentially precancerous, changes in the cells that line the cervix, increasing a woman’s risk of developing cervical cancer. Sometimes these changes go away, meaning cells revert back to normal after the body’s immune system has cleared the virus. Infection with HPV can take years, even decades, to develop into cancer.

There is no cure for HPV infection, but it can be prevented with HPV vaccination. Vaccines are usually given during adolescence.

The HPV vaccine is effective only if given before HPV infection occurs. For this reason, doctors try to vaccinate women and girls before they are sexually active. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends that the vaccine be given to girls at age 11 or 12, although it may be given to those as young as age 9.

Vaccination is also recommended for girls and women 13 to 26 years old who have not been vaccinated already, or who haven’t received the three scheduled doses. The vaccine is currently not recommended for women older than age 26, because it has not been well studied in this age group.

The Advisory Committee recommends vaccination in boys 11 or 12 years old and in boys or young men 13 to 21 years old who were not previously vaccinated. The vaccine is also available to men up to age 26 who are at an increased risk of infection, because they have sex with men or have a weakened immune system.

Vaccination helps to deter the spread of HPV to sexual partners and prevents cervical cancer and other HPV-related cancers, including those of the vulva, vagina, penis, and anus. Researchers are investigating whether the vaccine prevents cancers of the oropharynx.

Safer Sex

Practicing safer sex by using condoms or other barrier methods during vaginal, oral, and anal sex can help to reduce but does not eliminate the risk of becoming infected with HPV. Safer sex can also reduce the risk of becoming infected with other sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV, which increases cervical cancer risk.

Tobacco Cessation

Among women who smoke, the risk of developing cervical cancer is about double that of women who do not smoke. Perlmutter Cancer Center’s Tobacco Cessation Programs can help you quit—and thus reduce your cancer risk.

Screening for and Treatment of Precancerous Cells

Screening is imperative to cervical cancer prevention, even among women who have been vaccinated. If abnormalities or precancerous changes to the cervix are found, many effective treatment options are available.