The uterine cervix is the lowest portion of a woman's womb which connects the uterus with the vagina.

Cervical cancer normally occurs when the cells of the cervix grow abnormally and invade other tissues and organs of the body. When it is invasive, this cancer affects the deeper tissues of the cervix and may have spread to other parts of the body, most notably the lungs, liver, bladder and vagina and rectum.

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However, cervical cancer grows very slowly, so its progression through precancerous changes provides opportunities for prevention through early detection and rigorous treatment.

Cervical cancer begins with abnormal changes in the cervical tissue. The risk of developing these abnormal changes is associated with infection with human papillomavirus (HPV). In addition, early sexual contact, multiple sexual partners, and birth control pills increase the risk of cervical cancer because they lead to greater exposure to HPV.

Forms of HPV, a virus whose different types cause skin warts, genital warts, and other abnormal skin disorders, have been shown to lead to many of the changes in cervical cells that may eventually lead to cancer. Certain types of HPV have also been linked to cancers involving the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, tongue, and tonsils. Genetic material that comes from certain forms of HPV (high-risk subtypes) has been found in cervical tissues that show cancerous or precancerous changes.

In addition, women who have been diagnosed with HPV are more likely to develop a cervical cancer. Girls who begin sexual activity before age 16 or within a year of starting their menstrual periods are at high risk of developing cervical cancer.

Most women diagnosed with precancerous changes in the cervix are in their 20s and 30s but the average age of women when they are diagnosed with cervical cancer is the mid 50s. This difference in the age at which precancerous changes are most frequently diagnosed and the age at which cancer is diagnosed highlights the slow progression of this disease and the reason why it can be prevented if adequate steps are taken.

Early detection refers to measures that can be taken to diagnose cancer as early as possible, when the disease is easiest to treat.

1. Get screened

Plenty of risk factors, including your genes, are beyond your control. That is all the more reason to eliminate the risk factors that you alone control.

For women, doctors recommend yearly mammograms after age 40 to help prevent breast cancer. In addition, schedule a smear test every three years from age 21 to age 65; it’s a highly effective way to screen for cervical cancer.

Start the process by having a yearly check-up with your doctor. Ask about what screenings matter most for you. What screenings you have, and when, will depend not only on your age and gender, but also on other risk factors such as family history.

2. Know your family history and act accordingly

Family history is much more than a trip down memory lane. Your genes play a major role in many types of cancer. If cancer runs in your family, earlier screening can make a major difference in detection and prevention.

3. Control what you can

Plenty of risk factors, including your genes, are beyond your control. That is all the more reason to eliminate the risk factors that you alone control.

Lifestyle changes and choices make a proven difference in preventing cancer. For example:

Prevention and early detection depend largely on you and you must control what you can and start a lifelong habit of regular check-ups and screenings when you need them.