Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer only affects women and is the most common HPV-associated cancer. Almost all cervical cancer is caused by HPV. Research is still being done to understand how and to what extent HPV causes these cancers. Cancer is a disease in which cells in the body grow out of control. Cancer is always named for the part of the body where it starts, even if it spreads to other body parts later.

What Women Need to Know About HPVMost people who become infected with HPV do not know they have it. Usually, the body’s immune system gets rid of the HPV infection naturally within two years. This is true of both high-risk and low-risk types. By age 50, at least 4 out of every 5 women will have been infected with HPV at one point in their lives. HPV is also very common in men, and often has no symptoms.

When the body’s immune system can’t get rid of a high-risk HPV infection, it can linger over time and turn normal cells into abnormal cells and then cancer. About 10% of women with high-risk HPV on their cervix will develop long-lasting HPV infections that put them at risk for cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is the easiest female cancer to prevent, with regular screening tests and follow-up. Two tests can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early:

* The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for pre-cancers, cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately.
* The HPV test looks for the virus that can cause these cell changes.

The Pap test is recommended for all women, and can be done in a doctor’s office or clinic. During the Pap test, the doctor will use a plastic or metal instrument, called a speculum, to widen your vagina. This helps the doctor examine the vagina and the cervix, and collect a few cells and mucus from the cervix and the area around it. The cells are then placed on a slide or in a bottle of liquid and sent to a laboratory. The laboratory will check to be sure that the cells are normal.

If you are getting the HPV test in addition to the Pap test, the cells collected during the Pap test will be tested for HPV at the laboratory. Talk with your doctor, nurse, or other health care professional about whether the HPV test is right for you.

When you have your Pap test, your doctor also may perform a pelvic exam, checking your uterus, ovaries, and other organs to make sure there are no problems. There are times when your doctor may perform a pelvic exam without giving you a Pap test. Ask your doctor which tests you are having, if you are unsure.