Common Risk Factors for Cervical Cancer

When it comes to risk factors for cervical cancer, it helps to focus on those you can change or avoid.

January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month

Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cells lining the cervix — the lower part of the uterus.

These cells do not suddenly change into cancer. Instead, the normal cells of the cervix first slowly change into pre-cancer cells that can then turn into cancer. These changes may be called dysplasia. The change can take many years, but sometimes happen faster. These changes can be found by the Pap test and treated to prevent cancer.

There are 2 main types of cancer of the cervix. About 8 to 9 out of 10 are squamous cell carcinomas. Under the microscope, this type of cancer is made up of cells that are like squamous cells that cover the surface of the cervix.

Most of the rest are adenocarcinomas. These cancers start in the gland cells that make mucus. Less often, the cancer has features of both types and is called adenosquamous or mixed carcinoma.

Various strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection, play a role in causing most cervical cancer. When exposed to HPV, a woman’s immune system typically prevents the virus from doing harm. In a small group of women, however, the virus survives for years, contributing to the process that causes some cells on the surface of the cervix to become cancer cells.

However, aside from HPV, there are other risk factors for cervical cancer that women should be aware of.

  1. Smoking – Women who smoke are almost twice as likely as non-smokers to develop cervical cancer. Tobacco by-products have been found in the cervical mucus of women who smoke. Researchers believe that these substances damage the DNA of cervix cells and may contribute to the development of cervical cancer. Smoking also makes the immune system less effective in fighting HPV infections.
  2. Diet Low in Fruits and Vegetables – Women whose diets lack enough fruits and vegetables may be at increased risk for cervical cancer. Why? Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV). Experts believe that a diet high in the antioxidants, carotenoids, flavonoids, and folate found in fruits and vegetables can help the body fight HPV infection and prevent HPV infection from turning cells of the cervix into cancerous lesions.

    A study published in the journal Cancer Research found that women whose blood tests showed high levels of certain chemical compounds — indicating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables — were able to clear their HPV infections faster than their peers, which could help reduce the risk of cancer.

  3. Being Overweight – A recent study suggests that women who are overweight are at nearly double the risk of developing cervical cancer. Excessive fat has been shown to increase levels of estrogen, leading to the development of endometrial and cervical cancer according to the National Cancer Institute.
    Adenocarcinoma cells are the most common type of cervical cancer cells. The study found that:
  • Women who were heavier, had a higher body mass index (BMI) or had fat concentrated in their midsection were far more likely to have adenocarcinoma.
  • Women with a BMI greater than 30 — considered obese — were twice as likely to be diagnosed with adenocarcinoma.
  • Women with high waist-to-hip ratios (apple-shaped body) were also twice as likely to develop adenocarcinoma.
  • Women with a higher BMI had adenocarcinoma that was more advanced at diagnosis, even if they were getting regular Pap smears.

When it comes to risk factors for cervical cancer, it helps to focus on those you can change or avoid (like smoking or human papilloma virus infection), rather than those you cannot (such as your age and family history). If you have any of the above risk factors, it’s not too late to action. Start by increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables in your diet and go from there. It’s also important for women who have these factors to get regular Pap tests to detect cervical cancer early.