We tend to associate cancer with either getting older or making bad lifestyle choices, so it may surprise you to know that a common cancer affecting women is actually caused by a virus – a sexually transmitted virus called the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Cervical cancer and HPV
Cancer of the cervix – the narrow passage connecting the vagina and the uterus – kills hundreds of Canadian women every year. One in every 150 women is expected to develop cervical cancer during her lifetime, and one in 423 will die of it.
A number of factors can increase your risk of developing cervical cancer, such as smoking, damage to your immune system, taking birth control pills for a long time, or giving birth to a large number of children. However, the number one risk factor is infection with HPV.
What is HPV?
HPV is the collective name for more than 100 viruses that can infect many parts of the body. Some only infect the hands and face, but other types are sexually transmitted and can cause genital warts or cancer of the cervix, penis or anus. Some of these viruses are considered “low-risk” and others “high-risk” based on their potential to cause cancer. Two particular high-risk types have been found to be responsible for more than two thirds of all cervical cancers worldwide.
Who gets HPV?
HPV is more common than you might think – in fact, most sexually active adults have become infected at some time. Almost half of those affected are adolescents and young adults aged 15 to 24.
Can HPV infection be prevented?
Young women can reduce their risk of becoming infected by delaying becoming sexually active, limiting their number of sexual partners and considering their partners’ sexual history. Condom use during vaginal, anal and oral sex does not eliminate the risk of HPV infection, but it can decrease the chance of passing it on.