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Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix. It’s caused by some types of HPV, a common sexually transmitted infection. It can be prevented by getting the HPV vaccine, early detection, and treatment.

What’s cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix. The cervix is the lower, narrow opening of the uterus. It leads from your uterus to your vagina. Your cervix looks kind of like a donut if you look at it through your vagina.

Cervical cancer usually takes years to develop. During this time, the cells in the cervix change and grow rapidly. The early changes that happen before it becomes full blown cancer (precancerous) are called “dysplasia” or “cervical intraepithelial neoplasia” (CIN). If these changes are found and treated, cervical cancer can be prevented. If not diagnosed and treated, cervical cancer can spread to other parts of the body and become deadly.

How common is cervical cancer?

Each year, about 13,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer. About 4,000 people die from it every year.

What causes cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is caused by certain types of the human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common STD.

There are more than 200 kinds of HPV. Most of them aren’t harmful and go away on their own. But at least a dozen types of HPV can last and sometimes lead to cancer. Two in particular (types 16 and 18) lead to the majority of cervical cancer cases. These are called high-risk HPV.

Because HPV is such a common infection that usually goes away on its own, most people never know they have it. If you do find out that you have one of the high-risk types of HPV, don’t freak out — it doesn’t mean you have cancer. It means you have a type of HPV that can possibly lead to cancer in the future. That’s why catching it early is so important.

Who’s at risk for cervical cancer?

The biggest risk factor for cervical cancer is having one of the high-risk types of HPV. We don’t know why some people develop long-term HPV infections, precancerous cell changes, or cancer. But we do know that HPV is easily spread from sexual skin-to-skin contact with someone who has it.

HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact with genitals, as well as oral, vaginal, and anal sex. That means it can be spread even if no one cums, and even if a penis doesn’t go inside the vagina/anus/mouth.

HPV is the most common STD, and most of the time it isn’t a big deal. It usually goes away on its own, and most people don’t even know that they ever had HPV. In fact, most people who have sex get HPV at some point in their lives.

Besides HPV, there are other things that increase your cervical cancer risk. These include:

  • A personal history of dysplasia of the cervix, vagina, or vulva

  • A family history of cervical cancer

  • Smoking

  • Other infections such as chlamydia

  • Immune system problems such as HIV/AIDS that make it harder to fight infections like HPV

  • Having a mother who took a drug called diethylstilbestrol (DES) during pregnancy

Age is also a factor. The average age that cervical cancer is diagnosed is 48. It rarely affects those younger than 20.

All that being said, everyone who has a cervix is at risk for cervical cancer. So no matter who you sleep with or what your gender identity is, it’s important to take care of your cervical health.

Will cervical cancer affect my fertility?

Cervical cancer is treatable. If it’s found and treated early, there’s a good chance you’ll recover fully and not have any fertility problems.

Some cervical cancer treatments, though, can affect your fertility. If you get cervical cancer, your doctor will talk with you about the different treatments and their risks and side effects, including whether you’ll be able to get pregnant in the future.

What can I do to prevent cervical cancer?

Here are 4 things you can do to keep your cervix healthy.

  1. Get regular wellness exams that include HPV and/or Pap tests when you need them. Your doctor or nurse can help you figure out which test(s) make sense for you, and when you should start getting screened.

  2. Get the HPV vaccine and encourage people in your life to do the same.  HPV vaccines are given in a series of 2-3 shots over 6-12 months, depending on your age.

  3. Use condoms or dental dams every time you have vaginal, anal, or oral sex. This helps lower the chances of spreading HPV during sex.

  4. If you can, stop or cut back on smoking: People who have a high-risk type of HPV and smoke are more likely to get cervical cancer.

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