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What Causes Cervical Cancer?

By Marie Savard

What causes cervical cancer?

A virus, the human papillomavirus (HPV), causes virtually all cases of cervical cancer. HPV is a common sexually transmitted virus that usually goes away by itself. Most people with HPV never even know they have it.  Sometimes, if a high-risk type of HPV does not go away on its own, it may cause abnormal, or pre-cancerous, cells to form. If these abnormal cells are not found and treated, they may become cancer. An HPV infection rarely leads to cervical cancer. In most women, the cells in the cervix return to normal after the body’s immune system destroys the HPV infection.

How do I know if I have HPV?

In most cases, you won’t have any symptoms of a high-risk HPV infection (you may have symptoms of low risk - genital warts, for example). The only way to know if you have a persistent high-risk HPV infection is to have a direct test for the virus, the HPV test.

How is cervical cancer detected?

The American Cancer Society (ACS) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommend that women be screened every year with a regular Pap test. The Pap test looks at a sample of cells from your cervix to see if there are any cells that are abnormal. Women 30 years of age and older have the option of having both the Pap test and the HPV test. While a Pap is 51% to 85% accurate in identifying women with cervical cancer or its early signs, studies show that this number is increased to approximately 100% when an HPV test is used in conjunction with a Pap test in women age 30 and older.

Marie Savard, M.D., ABC News Medical Contributor, is one of the most trusted voices on women’s health, wellness and patient empowerment. She is the author of three books, The Body Shape Solution to Weight Loss and Wellness, How to Save Your Own Life: The Savard System for Managing—and Controlling—Your Health Care and The Savard Health Record. She is currently at work on a new book, Ask Dr. Marie: Straight Talk and Reassuring Answers to Your Most Private Questions, an informative and entertaining guide to women’s health that combines snappy, on-point opinions with the hard core facts about sex, libido, hormones, best preventive tests and other medical facts of life.

In addition to providing commentary for ABC News, she continually provides up-to-date and empowering health information through her website, newsletters and a regular blog on the health page of ABC News and her website. 

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