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What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus or womb.

Persistent HPV infection, usually with certain high-risk types of HPV, can cause abnormal cells to develop on the cervix.

Regular Pap tests can detect these abnormal cells at an early stage, when they can usually be treated quickly and easily.

Without regular Pap tests the abnormal cells may remain undetected and could develop into cervical cancer, usually over many years.

Treatments for cervical cancer can include surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

The best way for women to protect themselves against cervical cancer is to have the HPV vaccine when aged 12–13 years, and then have regular Pap tests once they are 18, or 2 years after first sexual contact, whichever comes latest. So women who become sexually active at 21 should have a Pap test at 23.

The incidence of cervical cancer is more than two times higher in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women than non-Indigenous women and the mortality rate is five times higher than in non-Indigenous women.

For more information about Pap tests visit the National Cervical Screening Program.

Although cervical cancer is the most common type of cancer caused by HPV, the virus is also known to cause vulval, vaginal, anal and mouth/throat cancers in women.

What are the risk factors of cervical cancer?

Almost all cases of cervical cancers are caused by HPV; persistent HPV infection is the biggest risk factor for cervical cancer.

For women, additional factors may contribute:

  • Smoking: this can increase the likelihood that HPV will persist in the body.

  • Sexual partners: the more sexual partners a person has, the higher their risk of contracting different and more types of HPV. However HPV exposure can occur the first time a person is sexually active, and in people who have only had one partner.

  • Early age at first intercourse.

  • Not having regular Pap tests: this means that abnormal cells caused by persistent HPV infection may remain undetected and untreated, and develop into cervical cancer – usually over many years.

  • Other sexually transmitted infections: women with genital herpes or Chlamydia are more likely to develop cervical cancer. This may be due to the inflammation of the cervix associated with having these infections. This is another reason to practice safe sex, including always using condoms.

  • Long term use of the Pill: being on the Pill for many years is associated with a higher risk of cervical cancer. The risk returns to normal after stopping the Pill. This might be due to the hormones in the Pill producing a favourable environment for the virus or because women on the Pill are more likely to be sexually active.

  • Early age of childbirth.

  • Weakened immune systems: People who are immunocompromised (for example, people with HIV or AIDS, organ transplant recipients, or people who are taking medication that suppresses the immune system) are at an increased risk of genital HPV infection.

Condoms offer some, but not total, protection from HPV, as they don't cover all of the genital skin. They do offer protection from many other sexually transmitted infections though, and help prevent unwanted pregnancy.

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Design and partial content reproduced with the kind permission of the New Zealand Ministry of Health.

The HPV vaccine is a prescription medicine. Medicines have benefits and risks. After reading this website, talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of this vaccine and to check eligibility.

Females who have had the HPV vaccine still need regular Pap tests.