Causes and risk factors
Each year, over 2,900 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the UK. It usually occurs in women over the age of 20. The highest rates occur between the ages of 30-39, but it can also affect younger and older women.
Cancer of the cervix can take many years to develop. Before it does, changes occur in the cells of the cervix. These changes are known as cervical intrapepithelial neoplasia (CIN). The abnormal cells are not cancerous, but some doctors refer to the changes to these cells as ‘pre-cancerous’. This means that the cells might develop into cancer in some women if they are not treated. But most women with CIN do not develop cancer, and if treatment is needed for CIN it’s nearly always effective.
Our section about cervical screening has more detailed information about CIN and its treatment.
Our video explains how doctors use cervical screening to help to prevent cancer.
Risk factors for cervical cancer
HPV and sex
CIN is usually the result of an infection from the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is a very common virus that can affect the cells of the cervix. It’s mainly passed on during sex.
Having sex at an early age and having several sexual partners can increase the risk of catching HPV and developing cervical cancer.
But many women who have only had one sexual partner have HPV at some point in their life, and may go on to develop CIN or cervical cancer. So there’s no reason for you or others to feel that you’re to blame for having cervical cancer.
We have more detailed information about HPV and cancer,.
Women who smoke are more likely to develop CIN and the most common type of cervical cancer, known as squamous cell cervical cancer.
A weakened immune system
Having a weakened immune system may allow CIN to develop into cancer. The immune system can be weakened by smoking, a poor diet and infections such as HIV/AIDS.
Long-term use of the contraceptive pill (for more than 10 years) can slightly increase the risk of developing cervical cancer. But for most women the benefits of taking the pill outweigh the risks.
Cancer of the cervix is not infectious and can’t be passed on to other people.