Cervical Cancer and HPV

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The Susan F. Smith Center for Women's Cancers at Dana-Farber provides a variety of services to help patients and their families cope with the many physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges of a cancer diagnosis and its treatment. We are committed to helping patients regain a sense of control over their lives and feel their best throughout treatment and beyond.

Although cervical cancer is relatively rare in the United States, approximately 11,000-12,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed each year. Thanks to regular screenings using the Pap smear, the number of American women who die from cervical cancer has decreased steadily over the last 40 years.

Cervical cancer is most commonly caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can be transmitted during sexual activity.

What is HPV?

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus that can cause abnormal tissue growth and other changes to cells. The virus can be spread through skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity and can be carried by both men and women. There are multiple strains of the virus that can cause genital warts and several forms of cancer, including cervical cancer and oropharyngeal cancer.

What is the relationship between HPV and cervical cancer?

HPV is the leading risk factor for cervical cancer, as almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV infection. Approximately 70 percent of cervical cancers are caused by HPV strains 16 and 18, which can also cause some vaginalvulvar and penile cancers.

What Is the Link Between HPV and Cervical Cancer?

How does HPV affect a woman's risk of cervical cancer? Ursula Matulonis, MD, medical director of the Gynecologic Oncology Program at the Susan F. Smith Center for Women's Cancers at Dana-Farber, discusses the topic with radiation oncologist Larissa Lee, MD, and medical oncologist Alexi Wright, MD, MPH.

Watch more videos about cervical cancer risk, prevention, and treatment.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

The signs and symptoms for cervical cancer can include vaginal bleeding, unusual vaginal discharge, pelvic pain or back pain, and bleeding after sexual intercourse. Symptoms of cervical cancer may not appear until the disease is advanced, so it is important to undergo regular screenings.

Are there ways to prevent cervical cancer?

Both the HPV vaccine and regular screenings can help reduce the risk of cervical cancer.

  • HPV vaccine — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends HPV vaccination for girls and young women between the ages of 9-26, and ideally between ages 11-12. The two available HPV vaccines — Cervarix and Gardasil — protect against HPV strains 16 and 18, which cause most cases of cervical cancer. The vaccines cannot prevent cervical cancer if the woman has already been infected with the HPV virus, so it is important to be vaccinated before the onset of sexual activity. It is also important to continue regular screenings after the vaccination, as they do not prevent against all HPV types that can cause cancer.
  • Pap smear — Regular screenings that include a Pap smear can help find abnormalities in the cervix, which could be signs of cancer. During a Pap smear (also known as a Pap test), a physician uses a small brush to gently scrape the cervix, collecting cells that can be viewed under a microscope and studied for signs of cancer. Healthy women should have their first Pap screening test at age 21, and if it's normal, get one every three years until age 65. Women over the age of 30 can continue this screening schedule if results remain normal, or they can be screened with a combination of a Pap test and a high-risk HPV test every five years. It's important to speak with your doctor about what is recommended in your situation.

If I have been exposed to HPV, what are my odds of getting cervical cancer? Is there anything I can do about it?

Most people who are infected with HPV do not develop cancer. In fact, many HPV infections go away within 1-2 years.

If a woman is infected, her doctor may require more frequent screenings and Pap smears to monitor any abnormalities found in the cervix. There is currently no treatment for HPV infections, but there are surgical treatments for precancerous lesions (cervical dysplasia) if they develop. Treating these early can help prevent further development of cancer.

The longer someone is infected with the virus, the higher the chance she has for developing cancer, so it is important to undergo regular screenings.

Are men affected by HPV?

Both men and women can carry and transmit HPV. In addition to cervical cancer, HPV infections can increase risk for oropharyngeal and penile cancer. The CDC recommends HPV vaccinations for boys ages 11-12, and up until age 21. The vaccine Gardasil is approved for both boys and girls.

Additional Resources

Learn more about cervical cancer screening recommendations.

Read about Dana-Farber's HPV and Related Cancers Outreach Program.