Cervical Screening

Ideas about causes

There are several risk factors for developing abnormal cervical cells, which if left untreated will develop in to cancer.

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) causes 99.7% of cervical cancers*. HPV is a very common infection and anybody who has ever been sexually active can have HPV. In most cases it clears up by itself without the need for treatment.
 
There are many types of HPV. The types of HPV that can cause warts, genital warts and verrucas are known as ‘low risk’ strains and do not usually cause cell changes that may develop into cancer. Some types of HPV can cause changes in the cells of the cervix or the lining of the mouth and throat. They are known as high risk HPVs. The changed cells have an increased risk of becoming cancerous.
 
The body’s immune system will usually clear HPV up, without the need for treatment. Since there are no symptoms for HPV, most people don’t even know they have contracted the virus. The virus can remain suppressed in some people for long periods of time. In some women the virus persists, placing them at greater risk of developing cervical abnormalities (CIN) which may need treatment.
 
Most women who have the virus do not develop cervical cancer. Most women who have HPV do not develop cervical cancer. However, a small number of women do develop abnormal cells that may become cancerous. This is why cervical screening and HPV vaccination is important in helping to prevent cancer (see CIN3 - HPV).
 
Other risk factors include smoking, and some studies suggest long term use of the contraceptive pill (over ten years) can slightly increase the risk.

Many of the women we interviewed were aware of some of the risk factors associated with abnormal cervical cells but many found it difficult to accept them as causes in their case as they were not present in their own lifestyle.

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Several women were aware of HPV and said they found it difficult when they had learnt that their abnormal cervical cells could be associated with a virus like HPV which could have lain dormant for many years.

Many stressed that if HPV was a cause for their abnormal cervical cells, they didn't know how they could have contracted it because they'd had very few sexual partners. A few did feel that their sexual history could have led to them being vulnerable to contracting HPV.

Whenever people are diagnosed with something they tend to have their own ideas about the causes. A few women thought that their abnormal cervical cells could be linked to their family history of cervical or gynaecological cancers. There is no medical evidence to support this link. Others thought that using certain types of contraception, such as the pill, may have been a factor in causing them to develop abnormal cervical cells. Recent research suggests that amongst women who have taken the pill for at least 5 years, the risk is almost doubled. But this is still a small risk, and it is important to know that taking the pill can help to protect you against womb and ovarian cancers. (Cancer Research UK 2015).

Some women were aware of the link between smoking and abnormal cervical cells but many said they had never smoked. One woman explains how her abnormal cervical cells disappeared after she gave up smoking.

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* Walboomers JMM et al. (1999) Human papilloma virus is a necessary cause of invasive cancer worldwide. Journal of Pathology, 189 (1), 12–19

Last reviewed October 2015.
Last updated October 2015.

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