What Causes Cervical Cancer?

A woman in her mid-50s speaking with a nurse

What causes cervical cancer? One of the most common forms of cancer affecting women, cervical cancer develops when abnormal cells form on the cervix and then grow and divide at a rapid pace. Normal, healthy cells develop in patterns that are predetermined by information contained in their chromosomes, or DNA molecules. DNA is a chemical that carries instructions for almost everything the cells do. Certain packets of DNA, called oncogenes, promote cellular division. Others, called tumor suppressor genes, inhibit cellular division, which causes the cells to die at an appropriate time.

Cancer can be caused by DNA mutations that affect the oncogenes or tumor suppressor genes, which can lead to an excessive accumulation of cells. Some tumor suppressor genes can be rendered ineffective by certain proteins known as E6 and E7. The body produces these proteins after being infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV). The presence of E6 and E7 proteins can allow the cells lining the cervix to grow uncontrollably, which, in some cases, can lead to cancer. Although not all women with HPV develop cervical cancer, HPV is still regarded as one of its leading causes.

However, it is important to note that:

  • Not all types of HPV cause cervical cancer.
  • Certain risk factors, such as smoking and HIV infection, can influence whether HPV exposure leads to the development of cervical cancer.
  • An HPV infection can resolve on its own.
  • Most adults have been infected with HPV at some point during their lives.

Therefore, HPV does not completely explain cervical cancer.

Is age a risk factor for cervical cancer?

Are women of a certain age more likely to develop cervical cancer? Age certainly appears to be a risk factor for this type of cancer, with women in their 30s and 40s having an increased risk of developing this malignancy.

The majority of cervical cancer diagnoses affect women between the ages of 35 and 44. Although many people think of cervical cancer as being a young woman’s disease, research shows that that’s actually not the case—this malignancy rarely develops in women under 20 years old, and more than 15% of diagnoses occur in women over the age of 65.

As such, while it’s especially important for women in their 30s and 40s to get screened for cervical cancer, women of all ages should regularly undergo screenings. As with many other types of cancer, an early cervical cancer diagnosis can significantly improve an individual’s prognosis and quality of life.

Is diet a risk factor for cervical cancer?

Eating a diet that’s lacking in certain nutrients can also increase a woman’s risk of developing cervical cancer. Studies show that regularly consuming foods containing antioxidants, carotenoids, flavonoids and folate can protect against this malignancy. Researchers theorize that this is because cervical cancer is often caused by an HPV infection, and the nutrients listed above are able to help fight this type of infection, preventing it from transforming cervical cells into cancerous lesions.

Women who are concerned about developing cervical cancer may want to consider eating a diet rich in the following foods:

  • Apples
  • Asparagus
  • Avocados
  • Beans
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Chickpeas
  • Cranberries
  • Garlic
  • Lentils
  • Lettuce
  • Lima beans
  • Onions
  • Orange juice
  • Pumpkin
  • Soy
  • Spinach
  • Squash
  • Strawberries
  • Sweet potatoes

HPV vaccine needle

The importance of getting the HPV vaccine

One of the best ways to reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer is to undergo the HPV vaccination. In fact, researchers have found that this vaccine could virtually eliminate cervical cancer. An added benefit to receiving the HPV vaccine is that it can also reduce the risk of developing a number of other malignancies, including anal cancer, head and neck cancer, penile cancer, vaginal cancer and vulvar cancer.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children ages 11 and 12 receive two shots six to 12 months apart, the vaccine can be administered to children as young as 9 years old, as well as to adults up to 45 years old. Individuals who receive their first dose when they’re above age 15 should undergo three doses over the course of six months.

Of course, the decision of whether to get the HPV vaccine is a personal one. Pregnant women and individuals who are ill should avoid being vaccinated. For others, the vaccine can cause mild side effects—potentially including fatigue, headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, as well as soreness and redness at the injection site—but there are no serious side effects associated with the vaccine.

Cervical cancer treatment at Moffitt

As scientific research continues to advance, more is being learned about the causes and risk factors of the condition.  In recognition of its cancer research advances and robust clinical trials, Moffitt Cancer Center has been designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center. Through our highly focused work, we continue to transform the diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer and other forms of cancer. As a result, our patient outcomes and survival rates outrank national averages, and our patients enjoy an enhanced quality of life.

If you would like to know more about what causes cervical cancer, you can call 1-888-663-3488 or complete our online new patient registration form. We’re proud to be providing each new patient with rapid access to a cancer expert within one day, a turnaround that’s faster than that offered by any other cancer hospital in the nation.