Cervical Cancer Basics

Learn the link between HPV and cervical cancer, how to recognize the symptoms, and how Pap tests can help prevent it.


The cervix is the lower end of a woman's uterus. It connects the uterus and the vagina. Cervical cancer can develop when cells lining the cervix grow in a disorderly fashion. This cancer is usually caused by a virus called human papillomavirus, or HPV. HPV is spread through sexual contact. Most women who are sexually active have been exposed to HPV. In most cases, a woman's body can fight HPV. In some, it can cause cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer can be prevented, and it can be cured if it's found early. But it usually has no symptoms. The only way to detect it is with a Pap test (or smear), a standard screening test for women. Pap tests save lives. Most women who have died of cervical cancer had not had a recent Pap test.

Does every woman with HPV get cervical cancer?
No. Doctors don't yet know why some women with HPV get cervical cancer while others do not. But certain risk factors increase the risk of a woman with HPV getting cervical cancer. They include:

  • Smoking
  • Staring sexual activity at an early age (16 or younger)
  • Having many sexual partners (the more partners, the higher the risk)
  • Having other STDs, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, or HIV/AIDS
  • Using birth control pills

Luckily, cervical cancer is a slow-growing disease. A regular Pap test can help find any abnormal changes in the cervix that need to be checked out.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Symptoms of cervical cancer usually don't appear until precancerous cervical cells become cancerous and invade nearby tissue. Precancerous changes in the cervix don't cause pain or abnormal bleeding. So there is usually no way for a woman to know that she has precancerous cervical cells.

The most common symptom of cervical cancer is abnormal bleeding. This could include:

  • Any spotting or bleeding that occurs between normal periods, after sexual intercourse or douching, or during a pelvic exam
  • Menstrual bleeding that lasts longer and is heavier than usual
  • Increased vaginal discharges
  • Painful intercourse
  • Bleeding after menopause

These symptoms can also be caused by conditions other than cervical cancer. See your doctor if you have any of these problems.

How can cervical cancer be prevented?
Regular pelvic examinations and Pap tests to identify and treat precancerous conditions are the most effective ways to prevent cervical cancer. You can help prevent sexually transmitted diseases like HPV by limiting your number of sexual partners, avoiding partners with high-risk sexual histories, and using a condom.

There is now a vaccine that can help prevent several common types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer. This vaccine is approved for use in young men and women ages 9 through 26. Not all types of HPV virus are prevented by this vaccine, though, so females still need routine Pap tests.

Smoking is also linked to cervical cancer - another good reason not to smoke.