What Causes Cervical Cancer?

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

Cervical cancer is one of the most common malignancies in women. Most tumors develop after abnormal cells form on the cervix, then those cells begin to grow and divide at an accelerated rate.

Normally, healthy cells throughout the body develop in patterns predetermined by the information contained in their chromosomes, or DNA molecules. DNA is a chemical that carries instructions for almost everything cells do. Certain packets of DNA, called oncogenes, promote cellular division. Other packets of DNA, called tumor suppressor genes, inhibit cellular division, which causes cells to die at the appropriate time.

Based on research performed to date, scientists believe that many cases of cancer are 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 made ineffective by certain proteins known as E6 and E7.

The role of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection in the development of cervical cancer

The human body produces E6 and E7 proteins after being infected with HPV, which is mainly spread through sexual contact. The presence of E6 and E7 proteins can cause the cells that line the cervix to grow uncontrollably, which, in some cases, can lead to cancer.

Although scientists have conclusively established that HPV infection is the main risk factor for cervical cancer, it is important to understand that:

  • Not all women with an HPV infection will develop cervical cancer. Many different types of HPV can affect the cervix, and only certain HPV strains can cause the cellular DNA changes that lead to the development of cancer.
  • Other cervical cancer risk factors, such as smoking, chlamydia, genital herpes and a weakened immune system, can influence whether HPV exposure leads to the development of cervical cancer.
  • Many HPV infections clear up on their own.
  • Most adults have been infected with HPV at some point during their lives.

HPV vaccine needle


The importance of getting the HPV vaccine

While HPV explains the majority of cervical cancer cases, it does not explain all of them. Nevertheless, one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of cervical cancer is to receive the HPV vaccination. In fact, researchers believe that the HPV vaccine could nearly eliminate cervical cancer. An added benefit is that it can also reduce the risk of other malignancies, including head and neck cancer, anal cancer, penile cancer, vaginal cancer and vulvar cancer.

For maximum effectiveness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children ages 11 and 12 receive two shots of the HPV vaccine six to 12 months apart. However, the vaccine can be administered to children as young as 9 and to adults as old as 45. Individuals who receive their first dose when they are older than 15 should receive three doses over a six-month period.

Of course, the decision of whether to get the HPV vaccine is a personal one. What’s more, certain people should not be vaccinated, including pregnant women and individuals who have a yeast allergy or bleeding disorder.

There are no serious complications associated with the HPV vaccine, although some people experience mild side effects such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Soreness and redness at the injection site

Cervical cancer causes other than HPV

Other than HPV, which can cause DNA mutations that lead to cervical cancer, some other risk factors include:

Age

Many people believe cervical cancer is a young woman’s disease, but research shows that is not the case. Cervical cancer rarely develops in women younger than 20, and more than 15% of diagnoses are made in women over 65. The majority of diagnoses are made in women between the ages of 35 and 44. As such, age appears to be a risk factor for cervical cancer, with women in their 30s and 40s at increased risk.

Although it is especially important for women in their 30s and 40s to be screened for cervical cancer, women of all ages should have regular screenings. As with many other types of cancer, an early cervical cancer diagnosis can lead to the best possible outcome and quality of life.

Diet

A diet lacking in certain nutrients can increase a woman’s risk of developing cervical cancer. Studies show that regularly eating foods that contain antioxidants, carotenoids, flavonoids or folate can provide some level of protection. More specifically, cervical cancer is often caused by HPV infection, which these nutrients can help fight off, thus preventing the infection from causing the DNA of cervical cells to mutate and progress into cancer.

To help prevent cervical cancer, women are encouraged to eat a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables, such as:

  • 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

Is cervical cancer genetic?

The two most common types of cervical cancer—squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma—are not hereditary. However, scientists believe that other types of cervical cancer may run in some families, although the genetic link seems to be relatively rare. More specifically, if a woman’s mother or sister were diagnosed with cervical cancer, her own risk could be higher than if no one else in her family had it. This phenomenon may be related to an inherited condition that interferes with the ability of the body’s immune system to fight off HPV infection.

Additionally, women in the same family could be more likely to share non-genetic risk factors for cervical cancer. For instance, women whose mothers were prescribed diethylstilbestrol (DES) during pregnancy to help prevent miscarriage have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer. DES was commonly used between 1940 and 1970, and it is likely that two sisters could share this risk factor.

Cervical cancer treatment at Moffitt Cancer Center

As scientific research continues to advance, more is being learned about cervical cancer causes and risk factors. Moffitt Cancer Center is proud to have been designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center in recognition of our groundbreaking research and robust clinical trials program. Through our highly focused work, we continue to transform the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer as well as 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 are proud to provide each new patient with rapid access to a cancer expert within one day, a response that is faster than that offered by any other cancer hospital in the nation.

References

National Cancer Institute – Cervical Cancer Screening
American Cancer Society – Risk Factors for Cervical Cancer