Prevention & Early Detection

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Early Detection for Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer used to be one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women, but widespread use of the Pap test has dramatically shifted detection to early precancerous and highly curable stages. However, more than 4,000 women die of cervical cancer in the United States each year, and an estimated 14,000 new cases of invasive cervical cancer are diagnosed.

If a Pap test shows an abnormality in the cells on the cervix, a doctor will perform a biopsy. A gynecologist will often use a colposcope--a viewing tube attached to magnifying binoculars--to find the abnormal area and remove a tiny section of the cervix surface.

The American Cancer Society recommends that women get a pap test every three years from their primary care doctor. If you don't have a primary doctor, you are welcome to review the University of Washington Physicians site to select a doctor that meets your needs at a neighborhood clinic close to you.

Cervical cancer is usually the result of a common virus: the human papilloma virus (HPV). In 2006, a vaccine, called Gardasil, became available that prevents the HPV virus, and thus the leading cause of cervical cancer, thanks in part to researchers from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Our doctors suggest that young women follow the advice of their family practitioners or pediatricians about whether Gardisil is the right choice for them.

Risk Factors

The biggest risk for cervical cancer is exposure to the human papilloma virus (HPV), now considered the cause in 95 percent of cervical cancer cases. Most women have the virus at some time during their lifetimes, but for many their immune system will get rid of the virus without them even knowing that it was there. Some types of the virus can cause genital warts, and other types can cause changes in the cells of the cervix.

The changes in the cervix usually clear up once the immune system has rid the body of the virus. In some women, however, the virus remains present for a number of years, and in a few of these cases, the changes in the cervix will develop into cancer if left untreated.

Other risk factors include smoking, HIV, a high number of sexual partners and becoming sexually active at an early age.