Mount Sinai Gynecologic Oncologist Linus Chuang, MD, Answers Frequently Asked Questions About Cervical Cancer
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer begins in the cervix, which is the lower, narrow end of the uterus, also called the womb. The cervix connects the vagina (birth canal) to the upper part of your uterus.
What causes cervical cancer?
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus that can be passed from one person to another during sex. There are more than 80 types of human papillomavirus. About 30 types can infect the cervix and about half of them have been linked to cervical cancer. Some HPV types can cause genital warts. HPV, which affects nearly 80 percent of all sexually active people, is so common that most people get it at some point in their lives. It usually causes no symptoms, so you can't tell whether you have it.
How common is cervical cancer?
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 6.2 million new HPV infections in American men and women annually, of which 10 percent will eventually go on to develop persistent cervical cancer. The most important risk factor in the development of cervical cancer is infection with HPV.
Who is at risk for cervical cancer?
Although HPV infection is the main cause of cervical cancer, your risk of developing the disease may increase if:
- You have multiple sexual partners beginning at a young age
- You have HIV/AIDS or another condition that makes it hard for your body to fight off health problems
- You smoke or are exposed to second hand smoke
- You use birth control pills for five or more years
What, if anything, can be done to prevent cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is highly preventable in most Western countries because screening tests and a vaccine are available. When cervical cancer is found early enough, it is highly treatable and associated with long survival and good quality of life. HPV infection is the main cause of cervical cancer. You can lower your risk of HPV infection by:
- Avoiding sexual activity: HPV infection of the cervix is the most common cause of cervical cancer. Avoiding sexual activity decreases your risk of HPV.
- Using barrier protection or spermicidal gels: Some methods used to prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) decrease your risk of HPV infection. The use of barrier methods of birth control, such as a condom or spermicide, helps protect against HPV infection
- Getting vaccinated: Two vaccines are available to protect you against the types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. Both vaccines are recommended for 11- and 12-year-old girls and for females 13-26 years of age who did not get any or all of their shots when they were younger. The vaccines can also be given to girls as young as 9 years of age. Even if you have been vaccinated against HPV, however, you still need to have regular Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer.
How do I know if I have cervical cancer?
The most important measure you can take to help prevent cervical cancer is to have regular screening tests:
- The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancers — cell changes on the cervix that may become cervical cancer if left untreated.
- The human papillomavirus (HPV) test looks for the virus that can cause these cell changes.
Through regular testing, cervical cancer is the easiest gynecologic cancer to prevent.
Mount Sinai has gynecologic oncologists available to treat cervical cancer. Treatment options depend on the following:
- The stage of your cancer
- The size of your tumor
- Your desire to have children
- Your age
For a woman who has a small cervical cancer and still desires future pregnancy, fertility sparing surgery can be performed without hysterectomy here at Mount Sinai. If you are pregnant, treatment of cervical cancer during pregnancy depends on the stage of the cancer and the stage of your pregnancy.