The Basics

What is cervical cancer? | What causes cervical cancer? | Is cervical cancer preventable? | Does a diagnosis of cervical cancer mean I’m going to die? | Ask about: the HPV vaccine, the Pap test, and the HPV test

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix, which is the opening from the vagina to the uterus.

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What causes cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is caused by a virus called HPV. The full name of the virus is human papillomavirus. (“Papilloma” is pronounced “pap-ah-LO-mah.”) But from now on we’ll simply call it HPV.

There are over a hundred types of viruses called HPV – it’s a very common virus. Most HPV types can cause warts – usually in the genital area, sometimes in the mouth or throat. Though wart-causing HPV types aren’t exactly welcome guests, they don’t lead to cancer.

However, some HPV types on your cervix can lead to cervical cancer. Two HPV types in particular are the worst. These two are responsible for about 70% of all cervical cancers.

Each of the virus types that can cause cervical cancer is called high-risk HPV. High-risk HPV itself is not cancer. And, having high-risk HPV doesn’t mean you’ll get cancer. In fact, as women, 8 out of 10 of us carry high-risk HPV at some time in our lives. Nothing bad happens – it just quietly goes away. To say this another way: While most women have HPV at some point in their lives, few women will get cervical cancer.

But sometimes high-risk HPV sticks around. For years. The medical term is persistent HPV infection.

Persistent high-risk HPV infection can lead to trouble. The virus can start causing changes in healthy cells. The cells become abnormal cells that can eventually lead to cancer. It takes about 10-15 years for cervical cells to change to abnormal cells and then into cervical cancer. During this time these abnormal cells are silent – you don’t feel ill in any way.

Going forward, when we use the term HPV, unless we say otherwise we’re talking about high-risk HPV.

For more information on high-risk HPV, go to the section called HPV.

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Is cervical cancer preventable?

Entirely. We mean it. Cervical cancer is entirely preventable. You just have to know what to do.

  • Two tests provide an early warning system.

    A Pap test looks for abnormal cells. If needed, these can be treated before they become cancerous.

    An HPV test looks for high-risk HPV that can cause abnormal cells. This lets your healthcare provider monitor you more closely for cell changes.

    Find out more at Total prevention: testing and vaccination

  • Safe, widely available treatments can remove abnormal cells.

    The Abnormal cells: get them treated section describes the procedures your healthcare provider uses to get rid of abnormal cells before they turn into cancer.

  • An HPV vaccine is now available for girls and young women 26 years of age and younger.

    The section called Total prevention: testing and vaccination explains in detail what the vaccine is and why, even if you are vaccinated, you still need to be tested.

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Does a diagnosis of cervical cancer mean I’m going to die?

Tamika & Friends, many of whom are cervical cancer survivors, are happy to shout out: No! There are many effective treatment options available. There’s also lots of support available, like us! We want to help you regain control of your life. Go to Browse Our Resources.

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Ask about: the HPV vaccine, the Pap test, and the HPV test

See your healthcare provider on a regular basis to find out what you can do to protect yourself from cervical cancer. The details are at Total prevention: testing and vaccination.

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Tamika & Friends is supported by an unrestricted educational grant from QIAGEN.