Reducing your risk of cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is the fourth leading cause of death for women worldwide, but fortunately it is also highly preventable and, if found early, highly treatable. Before we dive in to ways to reduce your risk, here’s a quick overview of what cervical cancer is and how you can identify it. And don’t forget – more than anything, we always recommend talking to your primary care provider if you have questions or concerns. Now let’s dive in.

What is it?
When cancer starts in the cervix, it is called cervical cancer. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. The most common cause of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Signs and symptoms
Cervical cancer may not have any noticeable signs or symptoms, but sometimes cervical cancer may cause:

  • Unusual vaginal discharge
  • Pelvic pain
  • Pain during sexual intercourse

Risk factors

Some cervical cancer risk factors can possibly be changed while others cannot:

  • Having a family history of cervical cancer
  • Women under 45 – cervical cancer is more common in younger people
  • Having HPV, HIV or another condition that weakens your immune system
  • Tobacco use
  • Using birth control pills for five years or more
  • Having given birth to three or more children
  • Having many sexual partners

Preventive testing

Cervical cancer is highly preventable due to screening tests and a vaccine to prevent human papillomavirus (HPV).

  • The Pap test looks for abnormal cells of the cervix that may become cervical cancer if left untreated. Women should start getting a Pap test at age 21 and continue having them every 3 years if test results remain normal.
  • The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that commonly cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. It is recommended for preteens (boys and girls) 11 to 12 years old but may be given as early as age 9 and until age 26. For adults ages 27 through 45 years, clinicians can consider discussing HPV vaccination with people who are most likely to benefit. Even women who had the vaccine need to have regular pap tests to screen for cervical cancer.

Healthy habits that may help prevent cervical cancer

There are several risk factors that might increase a person’s chance of developing cervical cancer. Making healthy lifestyle choices can help reduce these risks.

Routine screenings

Many cervical cancers are caused by HPV. Routine screenings allow health care providers to find and remove precancerous cells before they develop into cancer. As a result, cervical cancer incidence rates in the United States are decreasing.

Stop using tobacco

Smoking can cause cancer anywhere in the body.

  • Poisons in tobacco smoke can damage or change a cell’s DNA resulting in a cancer tumor.
  • Poisons in tobacco smoke can weaken the body’s immune system, making it harder to kill cancer cells.

Limit sexual factors

Several factors related to your sexual history can increase the risk of cervical cancer. The risk is most likely affected by increasing the chances of exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV).

  • Becoming sexually active when you are younger than 18 years old
  • Having many sexual partners
  • Having one partner who is considered high risk (someone with HPV infection or who has many sexual partners)

Condom use
While the effect of condoms in preventing HPV infection is unknown, condom use has been associated with a lower rate of cervical cancer.

Nutrition considerations
Eating a diet that includes whole fruits, vegetables and grains, legumes, nuts, fish, and unsaturated fats can help to reduce the risk of cervical cancer.

Antioxidants-rich foods and vitamins
Antioxidants are chemicals naturally produced in foods. They help protect the body from free radicals and oxidative stress, which is often thought to contribute to inflammatory conditions, certain cancers, the process of aging, and the increased risk of developing chronic disease.

  • Vitamin C: Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, tomatoes, and citrus fruits
  • Vitamin E: Almonds, avocado, sunflower seeds, oatmeal, and legumes (beans, lentils, split peas)
  • Beta carotene: Apricots, cantaloupe, mangos, carrots, grapefruit, and bell peppers
  • Selenium: Eggs, tuna, salmon, brown rice, onions, and many other vegetables

Folate and folic acid

  • Folate is an essential B vitamin found in fruits and vegetables. It is needed for repairing cells, making DNA, metabolizing amino acids, and forming red and white blood cells. Dark green vegetables such as spinach, kale, broccoli, and romaine lettuce, as well as chicory, oranges, papaya, nuts, beans, and peas are particularly good sources of folate.
  • Folic acid is the supplemental form of folate found in vitamins and fortified foods such as processed grain products like bread, cereal, pasta and rice.

Want to learn more?

Schedule an appointment with your provider today to discuss your risk factors and lifestyle habits.