Cervical Cancer: Prevention

How can cervical cancer be prevented?

Cervical cancer most often starts with precancerous cell changes. There are things women can do to help prevent these changes that lead to cervical cancer. The changes can be found and treated before cervical cancer develops.

Preventing precancer 

To help prevent the cervical cell changes that can lead to cancer, make sure to:

  • Avoid HPV infection. The most important risk factor for cervical cancer is having certain types of the human papillomavirus (HPV). This is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. More than 150 types of HPV have been found. Some high-risk types of HPV are linked to cervical cancer. HPV is most often transmitted through vaginal, oral, or anal sex with a person who has the virus. It can also be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. Because genital warts may not always be present or visible, you can't tell just by looking if a person has genital HPV. Also, a person may not know he or she has HPV, because there may be no symptoms.

  • Get vaccinated. Vaccines are available to protect against certain types of HPV infection. They are given as a series of 3 injections given over a 6-month period. The vaccines only work if given before an infection with HPV, so 1 of them should be given before a person becomes sexually active.The vaccines are fairly new, so experts don't know how long they protect. Studies so far have shown that the vaccines work for several years.No vaccine gives full protection against all cancer-causing types of HPV. It's still important to get routine Pap tests.

  • Use condoms every time from start to finish. Condoms may help protect you from HPV. They need to be used correctly and every time you have sex. The HPV virus can still be spread through skin-to-skin contact with any infected part of the body. This includes the skin in the genital area that can't be covered by a condom. Condoms do help prevent Chlamydia infection. Chlamydia has been linked to an increased risk for cervical cancer, and other sexually transmitted infections. 

  • Don't smoke. Smoking has been linked to cervical precancer and cancer.

Finding precancer

A Pap test can find precancerous cells of the cervix before they become cancer. Having regular Pap tests gives you a better chance of preventing cancer. In fact, most cases of cervical cancer are found in women who have not had regular screening tests.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) notes that all women should get regular Pap tests starting at age 21. The ACS recommendations say that: 

Women between ages 21 and 29 should get a Pap test done every 3 years.

  • Women between the ages of 30 and 65 should have a Pap test plus an HPV test (co-testing) every 5 years.

  • Women older than 65 who have had regular screening with normal results should not be screened for cervical cancer. Once screening is stopped, it should not be started again.

  • Women who have an increased risk for cervical cancer because of a weak immune system or other risk factors may need screening more often and should talk with their healthcare provider. 

  • A woman who has had a hysterectomy with removal of the cervix for reasons not related to cervical cancer and who has no history of cervical cancer or serious precancer should not be screened.  

  • A woman who has been vaccinated against HPV should follow the screening advice for her age group.