A risk factor is any factor that is associated with increasing someone’s chances of developing a certain condition, such as cancer. Some risk factors are modifiable, such as lifestyle or environmental risk factors, and others cannot be modified, such as family history and inherited factors.
Having 1 or more risk factors does not mean that a person will develop cancer. Many people have at least 1 risk factor but will never develop cancer, while others with cancer may have had no known risk factors. Even if a person with cancer has a risk factor, it is usually hard to know how much that risk factor contributed to the development of their disease.
Cervical cancer is not infectious. It is not caused by an inherited faulty gene, so other members of your family are not likely to be at risk of developing it.
Risk factors for cervical cancer are:
- infection with human papillomavirus
- lack of regular Cervical Screening Tests
- taking contraceptive pills for a long time
- previous abnormality or cancer of the cervix
- having many children
- diethylstilboestrol (DES).
Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV is a common virus that is spread by genital skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity. It is so common that many people have it at some point in their lives and never know it as there are usually no symptoms.
There are many types of HPV and the body’s immune system will naturally clear most types within one to two years.
If the body’s immune system does not clear a HPV infection, it can cause changes to cells in the cervix, which in rare cases can develop into cervical cancer. It usually takes 10 to 15 years for HPV to develop into cervical cancer.
More than 100 types of HPV have been identified, and about a dozen of these are considered high risk because they can lead to cancer. The HPV vaccine (also known as the ‘cervical cancer vaccine’) can protect against several types of HPV, including types that cause cancer.
The Cervical Screening Test has replaced the two-yearly Pap test and is more accurate at detecting HPV. The Pap test used to look for cell changes in the cervix, whereas the new Cervical Screening Test looks for HPV which can lead to cell changes in the cervix. For more information about HPV and cervical cancer, go to http://www.cancerscreening.gov.au/internet/screening/publishing.nsf/Content/about-HPV-and-cervical-cancer
Chemicals in tobacco may damage the cells of the cervix and make cancer more likely to develop.
Cervical cancer is more common among women who don’t have regular Cervical Screening Tests.
All women who have ever had sex should have a Cervical Screening Test every 5 years between the ages of 25 and 74. The Cervical Screening Test detects the HPV virus which can lead to cell changes in the cervix. This means that precancerous cells can be removed or treated as early as possible, which reduces the risk of developing invasive cervical cancer.
Regular Cervical Screening Tests are important, even if you have been vaccinated against HPV.
Cervical cancer mainly occurs in women over 35 years old and is less common in women under 25. Around 70% of cervical cancers are diagnosed in women under 60 years old.
Using contraceptive pills (also called birth control pills, or the ‘pill’) for 5 or more years may increase the risk of cervical cancer in women who also have HPV infection. This risk decreases quickly if you stop using the pill.
Women who have HPV detected on the Cervical Screening Test are at a higher risk of cervical abnormalities. The recommended management will either be a repeat screening test in 12 months or referral to a specialist for further assessment by colposcopy, depending on the type of HPV present. If abnormal cells are found during colposcopy, further treatment may be required. For more information about the Cervical Screening test results and treatment for abnormal cells, go to:
Women who have had an abnormality on a previous Pap test should discuss their ongoing management with their doctor.
Women who have been diagnosed with cervical cancer in the past are also at higher risk of developing cervical cancer again. Your doctor will discuss how to manage this risk with you.
Studies suggest that giving birth to 5 or more children may slightly increase the risk of cervical cancer for women who have HPV infection.
DES is a synthetic form of the female hormone oestrogen. It was used to prevent miscarriage and other complications of pregnancy, and was given to some pregnant women during the late 1940s and 1950s, and used less in the 1960s and 1970s. DES is no longer given to pregnant women.
DES may increase the risk of a rare form of cervical cancer (and some other cancers of the reproductive system) in daughters who were exposed to this drug before they were born (i.e. if your mother took DES while she was pregnant with you).
If you were exposed to DES before you were born, you should have Cervical Screening Tests and colposcopic examination of the cervix and vagina every year, and discuss your risk of cervical cancer with your doctor.
For more information, see Cancer Australia’s webpage on DES.
Find out more about:
- Lifestyle and risk reduction
- Position Statement on Lifestyle risk factors and the primary prevention of cancer