Can the Intrauterine Device (IUD) Reduce Cervical Cancer Risk?

Associate Professor of Oncology in the Department of Gynecologic Oncology
Thursday, February 15, 2018 - 11:52am

Yes, it can. Across the board, the IUD is known to lower risk for many gynecological cancers, including endometrial and ovarian cancer, but with regard to cervical cancer, the latest research suggests the benefit can be significant — as much as a 30% reduced risk.

This is a very exciting finding, and it was the topic of a recent article in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology. Researchers analyzed 34 studies that looked at the use of an IUD and the incidence of cervical cancer. They looked at all types of IUDs, in various patient populations around the world, and the findings held true. Invasive cervical cancer was about 30% less frequent among women who used an IUD.

While this benefit is welcome, it’s not a primary reason to choose an IUD as your birth control method. It may be considered a perk, however, especially for women whose options may be limited by other factors. For example, some women should not take oral contraceptives if they smoke and are over age 35.

Women who benefited most from the reduced risk for cervical cancer, according to the research, were the same women most at risk for the cancer: women in medically underserved areas, with lower socioeconomic status, or without benefit of regular screening. Worldwide, cervical cancer is one of the four most common cancers in women (more than 525,000 new cases resulting in over 250,000 deaths), so it’s a major healthcare problem.

In this country, where the rate of cervical cancer has declined 50% over the past three decades, the IUD’s potential risk reduction benefit may prove less clear — women who regularly go to their doctor for an IUD are probably also the women who are most likely to have received the HPV vaccine and those who are getting screened. Yet we still have room for improvement. For example, HPV vaccination rates in Erie County, NY, for adolescent girls ages 13-17 was only 30% in 2012. We’d like to see rates over 80% in both girls and boys to have a major long-term impact on HPV-related diseases like cervical cancer.

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A Better Strategy Against Cervical Cancer

Avoiding and preventing human papillomavirus (HPV) exposure with safe sex practices and HPV vaccination are the best ways to reduce cervical cancer risk. HPV is a viral infection that’s responsible for nearly all cervical cancers — as well as some cancers of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus, rectum and oropharynx (cancers of the back of the throat, including the tongue and tonsils). The vaccine is most effective when given before possible exposure to HPV — in other words, before becoming sexually active. Children typically receive the vaccine around age 11 or 12, but if you missed it, you can still get it through age 26. Sooner is better.

Reducing Your Risk

Whether or not you received the vaccine, you still need to follow protective measures. Regular screening with the Pap test can detect HPV infection and early precancerous lesions, which can be treated effectively before they turn into cancer. About 50% of women diagnosed with cervical cancer never had a Pap test; another 10% did not have one in the past five years. Take control of your cervical cancer risk by:

  • Getting a Pap test regularly. Low-risk women should have the Pap test every three to five years, depending on their age. Women with HPV or a history of abnormal Pap tests may require more frequent screening.
  • Quitting smoking. Women who smoke are four times more likely to develop cervical cancer. Quitting will also reduce your risk for many other cancers, including cancers of the lung, esophagus, larynx, mouth, throat, kidney, bladder, liver, colon and pancreas, among others.

At the end of the day, the IUD is a safe and effective method of birth control that is an attractive option for many women, with additional benefits like reducing the incidence of abnormal uterine bleeding and lowering the risk of some cancers, including cervical cancer. Talk to your healthcare provider about the best ways you can reduce your risk for cancer.