Join or Renew and Choose Your Gift
- Offer ends Dec. 17
- Discounts on travel and everyday savings
- Subscription to AARP The Magazine
- Free membership for your spouse or partner
To understand cervical cancer, it helps to be familiar with the anatomy of the cervix and surrounding areas. The uterine cervix is the neck of the uterus (or womb). If you were to think of an upside-down pear as a rough model of the uterus, the cervix would correspond to the narrow part of the fruit as it tapers toward the stem. The uterus is hollow in order to accommodate a fetus after conception occurs. This cavity opens to the vagina through the cervical canal, through which the fetus leaves the womb to enter the birth canal (the vagina) during childbirth.
The cause of cervical cancer remained a mystery for decades. Scientists had noticed since the mid-nineteenth century that cervical cancer was rare among nuns but common among prostitutes. They were puzzled by this observation but failed to draw a connection between cervical cancer and sexual activity. Later generations of researchers noticed that women with cervical cancer often had genital herpes as well, leading them to the erroneous conclusion that the latter caused the former. A possible link between cervical cancer and sex with uncircumcised men was investigated, but no such association could be supported by clinical research. Finally scientists at the National Cancer Institute proved that most types of cervical cancer are caused by a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV).
HPV is common; it is estimated that half of sexually active Americans have been exposed to one or another form of the virus. According the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), six million people in the United States acquire HPV each year. For most people, however, HPV does not have any serious effects. Most women's immune systems, when exposed to HPV, clear the virus, preventing it from causing any serious harm to the body.
In some women, however, the virus can integrate into cells of the cervix and cause damage to the cells, eventually leading to cancer. More than 90 percent of cervical cancer is caused by HPV infections—particularly, by strains 16 and 18—that infect cells of the cervix and are not cleared by the immune system.
Written by: the Healthline Editorial Team
Medically reviewed by Jennifer Monti, MD, MPH
Enter your symptoms in our Symptom Checker to find out possible causes of your symptoms. Go.
Enter any list of prescription drugs and see how they interact with each other and with other substances. Go.
Enter its color and shape information, and this tool helps you identify it. Go.
Find information on drug interactions, side effects, and more. Go.
From companies that meet the high standards of service and quality set by AARP.
Members save on purchases from The Popcorn Factory®.
Members save from top retailers online at Everyday Savings Center powered by NextJump.
Members save 10% on all Amazon Kindle e-readers and the Kindle Fire HD tablet.
Get the most out of your AARP membership – opt-in to receive AARP emails today!
Register at a location near you to keep your driving skills sharp.
Find opportunities to volunteer in your neighborhood.
NASCAR champ Jeff Gordon teams up with AARP's Foundation.
AARP Foundation Prepaid MasterCard brought to you by Green Dot.
Nothing has been viewed