Causes of cervical cancer
The main cause of cervical cancer is the human papilloma virus (HPV). There are over 130 different types (strains) of HPV and each type has a specific number. Some types cause warts and verrucas, others increase the risk of cervical and other types of cancer and are known as high-risk HPV.
You might catch this common virus through having sex and be unaware that you have it because it doesn’t usually cause any symptoms. Your immune system may fight off the infection so you may never be aware of it. Yet for some women, the virus can lie dormant for many years and then cause abnormal cells, especially if something causes a dip in your immune system. But only a very small proportion of women with HPV will develop cervical cancer.
Vaccinations to protect against HPV have been developed to reduce the number of women developing cervical cancer. Since 2008 in the UK, there’s been a national programme of vaccination for girls aged 11 to 14.
Other things that can increase your risk of getting cervical cancer include:
- starting to have sex at an early age
- having other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as chlamydia and herpes
- having sex with lots of different people or having a partner who has many other partners
- having a weakened immune system – for example, because of HIV or immunosuppressant medication
- your family history – if your mother or sister has had cervical cancer, it may increase your risk but doctors are unsure whether this is something you can inherit or is because of other things you have in common
Prevention of cervical cancer
There are things you can do to help prevent cervical cancer.
- Have regular smear tests. These are part of the NHS cervical screening programme and can detect pre-cancerous cells in your cervix (neck of the womb). If you’re aged between 25 and 64, you’ll be invited for a smear test every three or five years depending on your age bracket. You can read all about what happens in the screening test in our separate topic: Smear test (cervical screening).
- Have the HPV vaccine. Girls between 11 and 14 across the UK are offered a vaccine. This protects against the HPV strains most likely to cause cervical cancer.
- Use condoms. These offer some protection against the HPV virus and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Help and support
If you’re diagnosed with cancer, it can be distressing for you and your family. An important part of cancer treatment is having support to deal with the emotional aspects as well as the physical symptoms. Specialist cancer doctors and nurses are experts in providing the support you need, and may also visit you at home. If you have more advanced cancer, further support is available to you in hospices or at home, and this is called palliative care. For links to further support and information, see: Other helpful websites.
FAQ: Will treatment affect my sex life?
It's usually safe to start having sex again within a few weeks of finishing radiotherapy or having surgery for cervical cancer. But sometimes treatment for cervical cancer may cause an early menopause and radiotherapy can cause side-effects that can affect your sex life.
If you haven't gone through the menopause yet, radiotherapy or surgery to remove your womb and ovaries (hysterectomy) will cause an early menopause. The symptoms are the same as those of a natural menopause, which you can read about in our separate topic on menopause. This topic also discusses some treatments that can help.
Radiotherapy may cause narrowing of your vagina, a dry vagina and pain when you have sex. Talk to your healthcare team – your nurse or doctor – about how to manage these symptoms.
You may want to use condoms if you’re having chemotherapy. This is because doctors don’t know whether or not these medicines can pass to your partner though your vaginal or cervical mucus, so a condom will help protect your partner.
An important aspect of cancer treatment to consider is how it can make you feel. It might make you feel anxious about having sex again. You might need a bit more time to come to terms with what’s happened to you. Talk to your partner and keep communicating. If you find it becomes a problem for you both, you may want to talk to a sex therapist. Ask your GP if they can put you in touch with one.
FAQ: Do I still need smear tests?
Yes, if you’ve had the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine, you’ll still need to have regular smear tests.
There are over 130 types of HPV, and only some of them are associated with an increased risk of developing certain types of cancer. There are two HPV vaccines but they don't protect against all types of HPV that are associated with cervical changes and cancer. Therefore, the vaccination doesn't provide complete protection against the disease. It's thought that vaccination will prevent about nine out of 10 of the most common type of cervical cancer (squamous cell cancer) from developing. So it's important to attend for routine smear tests even if you’ve had the HPV vaccine.
FAQ: Does human papilloma virus cause cancer in men?
Yes, the human papilloma virus (HPV) is linked with cancer of the penis and anus. It’s also linked with head and neck cancer – this includes your tonsils, tongue, and the back of your throat (known as the pharynx).
HPV is a common virus that can be passed on through sex but it doesn't usually cause any symptoms. There are over 130 types of HPV, and some of these can increase the risk of developing a particular cancer, which are called 'high-risk' HPV. Your immune system usually removes the virus from your body. But the virus can also remain in your body without causing any harm for a long time.
High-risk HPV can increase your risk of getting penile or anal cancers, although these are rare in the UK.
Symptoms of penile cancer include:
- a lump, ulcer or growth on the skin of your penis, or under your foreskin
- red skin on the skin of your penis
- discharge or bleeding from your penis
- feeling itchy or a burning sensation – especially under your foreskin
High-risk HPV can also cause changes in the cells around your anus, and these changes may develop into anal cancer after many years. See our separate topic on anal cancer to learn about the symptoms.
High-risk HPV may be linked to head and neck cancer, which affects your tonsils, tongue and pharynx (back of your throat). This type of HPV is most likely to be transmitted if you have oral sex. Symptoms depend on which part of your head or neck has cancer but they include:
- an ulcer that doesn't heal
- difficult or painful swallowing
- problems with your teeth, such as loose teeth or dentures not fitting anymore
- a constant sore throat
- a lump in your throat
- a numb mouth or lips
If you have any of these symptoms, they may not be caused by these cancers, but contact your GP.
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Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, August 2017
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Next review due August 2020
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