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Risk Factors & Reducing Risk

Understanding the risk factors for cervical cancer can help you to make changes to your lifestyle and be aware of the condition. Just because you may be at risk due to one or more of these factors doesn’t mean you will necessarily develop cervical cancer. However, early detection saves lives. You can take a simple GynaeCheck HPV screening test, which you can do in the comfort of your own home. It will help early identification of the virus as well as advising you on your specific risks. Through changes in lifestyle, many of these risks can be reduced. Please see below.

Sexual behaviour
Condoms are very important in reducing sexually transmitted diseases, but do not wholly protect against HPV as the virus is present in the whole genital area (a so-called “field effect”). As a consequence, even individuals who practice safe sex are at risk of contracting HPV, and as such should consider screening.

There is also some evidence that there is an increased risk of developing cervical cancer if you have HPV and herpes or chlamydia. The evidence for herpes is disputed, however HPV and chlamydia has been found to double the risk of squamous cell cervical cancer. Both of these sexually transmitted diseases can be prevented with the use of a condom.

Be aware that HPV also plays an important role in mouth and anal cancer meaning that unprotected oral and anal cancer may also spread HPV.

The combination of smoking and already having HPV is more likely to lead to cervical cancer. Women who smoke and have HPV are twice as likely to have pre-cancerous cells in the cervix. A study published in Nature in December 2011* found that 7% of cervical cancers are linked to smoking.

Oral contraceptives
In general the positive effects of taking the pill in reducing unwanted pregnancies far out weighs the negative effects, but another study, also published in 2011* found that approximately 10% of cervical cancers were attributable to oral contraceptives. Despite this increased level of risk, women should not immediately stop taking this form of contraception as it can help prevent womb and ovarian cancer. Women who use oral contraceptives should also be aware that they still need consider condoms as part of safe sexual practise.

Previous cancer
Cervical cancer risk is higher in survivors of vaginal and vulval cancers. At the moment, there are no screening tests available for these cancers.

Weakened immune systems
The immune system can play a part in preventing cancers and hence a weakened immune system can increase the risk of cervical cancers developing. Women with HIV /AIDS have been found to have a six-fold increased risk and those having undergone transplant surgery also have double the risk.

Family history
Women who have a 1st degree relative (i.e. mother or sister) who has had cervical cancer have a higher risk of developing the disease. This link does not appear to be straightforward and is believed to be due to similar lifestyles or a shared immune response to the HPV virus.

Socio-economic status
Cancer Research UK states that the rates of cervical cancer in women in the most deprived areas of England and Wales are three times higher than those of women in the least deprived.

A chemical, tetrachloroethylene, used in dry cleaning and degreasing is thought to be carcinogenic to humans and hence exposure to this chemical is a significant factor in the 1% of cervical cancers in the UK linked to occupation.

Understanding Cervical Cancer Risk Factors

You can read more about reducing the risk of cervical cancer and find out more about cervical cancer on this site. We also have a page on cervical cancer symptoms if you are worried and our clinicians have answered some of the most common questions about cervical cancer on our FAQ page.

If you would like more information on GynaeCheck, our home screening service, please contact us.

1. Parkin DM, Boyd L, Walker LC. The fraction of cancer attributable to lifestyle and environmental factors in the UK in 2010. Summary and conclusions. Br J Cancer 6 Dec 2011; 105 (S2):S77-S81.
2. Parkin DM. Cancers attributable to exposure to hormones in the UK in 2010. Br J Cancer 2011; 105(S2):S42-S48.

How can I prevent getting cervical cancer?

You can’t completely prevent cervical cancer but you can try to reduce your own risk of developing this serious disease. Some risk factors you cannot help, such as age, of course. Women of all ages can develop cervical cancer but the risk is highest between 25 and 49. Cervical cancer is not thought to be hereditary.

Practice safe sex
Use of condoms will reduce the risk of spreading or contracting the HPV virus. Keep in mind however that condoms are very important to reduce sexually transmitted diseases, but do not wholly protect against HPV as the virus is present in the whole genital area (a so-called “field effect”). As a consequence even if safe sex practises are used regularly individuals are at risk of contracting HPV.

Stop Smoking
If you smoke, giving up will reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer – as well as other cancers. Tobacco contains many toxins which have a negative effect on your health and put you at significant risk of developing cancer.

Exercise regularly
There is good evidence to suggest regular exercise can lower the risk of developing cancers. Try to maintain a healthy weight. Taking part in physical activities will help keep your weight under control.

Understand the symptoms of cervical cancer
Part of your cervical cancer prevention and risk reduction plan should be to be aware of what to look out for and if you have any of these symptoms, don’t be embarrassed, talk to your doctor straight away. Remember, cervical cancer is a very treatable disease if detected in its earliest stages.

  • Unusual bleeding
  • Pain and discomfort during sex
  • Unpleasant smelling vaginal discharge

 HPV Vaccination

There are 13 types of high risk HPV that cause cervical cancer. Our test reports on all 13 types, with HPV 16 & 18 being reported individually because they cause approximately 70% of all cervical cancers, and all other types of HPV (31, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59, 66, 68) reported as a group. The reason that subtypes 16 & 18 are reported separately is that they cause the majority of cervical cancers and, if they are absent, then HPV vaccination to prevent future infection with HPV 16 or 18 is possible. If diagnosed with a high-risk subtype other than 16 or 18, the report will not identify exactly which one of these subtypes is present as the management is similar for all high-risk subtypes.

Cervical Cancer Screening
Whilst undergoing cervical cancer screening will not prevent cervical cancer, it can help to detect cancers in their earliest stages so you can get treatment early. If you are worried about cervical cancer, GynaeHealth UK have developed GynaeCheck, a simple testing kit that you can do in the comfort of your own home. No cervical cancer screening test can be guaranteed to be 100% accurate, and a positive result from GynaeCheck will mean that further investigations are likely to be recommended. If you are interested in GynaeCheck, please contact us today.

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