Cervical Cancer Causes

Cervical cancer affects nearly 500,000 women worldwide every year. In some developing countries, cervical cancer is a leading cause of death in women, mainly due to a lack of screening programs for the prevention of cancer of the cervix.

Studies show that the implementation of the Pap smear screening program in the United States reduced the incidence of cervical cancer by 74 percent between 1955 and 1992. What was once the most common cause of death for women in the United States is now being eliminated at a rate of two percent per year. Still, according to the American Cancer Society, 12,000 cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2003.

What causes cervical cancer is not yet completely clear. Researchers believe that several mechanisms are working together in the development of the disease. Statistical studies have shown a link between certain behavioral patterns and an increased risk of cervical cancer.

Cervical Cancer Risk Factors

Risk factors are conditions or lifestyle behaviors that might in some way encourage the growth of cancerous cells. It is important to note that individuals who don’t have any of the risk factors may still develop cervical cancer, although rarely, and that having one or all of the risk factors does not guarantee its onset.

Some of the risk factors for cancer of the cervix include: a high number of sexual partners, infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), cigarette smoking, oral contraceptive use (birth control pills), and immunosuppression (immunosuppressed individuals with AIDS, or those on immunosuppressive treatment).

In addition, as women age, the incidence of cervical cancer increases, with an average age at the time of diagnosis of 50 to 55 years. Also, women whose mother or sisters have had cervical cancer may be at a higher risk.

High-Risk Sexual Activity and STDs

Certain characteristics like early age at first intercourse, high lifetime number of sexual partners, having a partner who began at a young age, or who previously had sex with someone who developed cervical cancer, are all thought to add to one’s risk. These “high-risk” sexual activities can lead to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that are linked to cervical cancer. Studies show a strong link between cervical cancer and the STD human papillomavirus (HPV).

The Diethylstilbestrol (DES) Link

The hormone drug diethylstilbestrol, or DES, was prescribed to some women between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage. The FDA banned the use of DES for pregnant women in 1971 because of the drug’s potential harm to the fetus. A small percentage of daughters born to women who took DES have developed a specific type of cancer affecting the vagina or cervix called clear-cell adenocarcinoma. Due to the timing of the FDA recall, those at greatest risk are currently between the ages of thirty and sixty.

Other Risks

New studies show a connection between obesity and cervical cancer. An increase of fat tissue in the body affects sex hormone levels. This change in hormone levels can make the body more susceptible to cervical cancer.


Smith, J., Green, J., Berrington de Gonzalez, A., Appleby, P., Peto, J., Plummer, M., Franceschi, S., Beral, V. (2003, April 5). Cervical cancer and use of hormonal contraceptives: A systematic review. The Lancet, 361(9364), 1159-1167.