Frequently Searched Questions: Cervical cancer and HPV

Our gynecologic oncologist answer some of the internet's most-searched questions related to cervical cancer

You ask the Internet a lot of questions, and Roswell Park has some answers. Gynecologic oncologist Peter Frederick, MD, FACOG, sat down to answer some of the Internet's most-searched questions related to cervical cancer prevention, screening and treatment.

Is cervical cancer genetic?

Cervical cancer is typically not genetic. About 99% of the time, cervical cancer is caused by HPV — the human papillomavirus.

If you have HPV, will you get cervical cancer?

HPV causes about 99% of cervical cancers, but the vast majority of women who have been exposed to HPV will not go on to develop cervical cancer. The concern is when women have an HPV infection that doesn’t clear up on its own. In those cases, it can lead to cervical dysplasia (abnormal cells in the cervix), and then, over time, that cervical dysplasia can turn into cervical cancer.

Frequently, when a woman is undergoing a Pap test, doctors will check for HPV as part of the screening process to see if the woman might be at an increased risk for developing cervical dysplasia or cervical cancer.

How is cervical cancer treated?

The treatment of cervical cancer depends on the size of the cancer and how far it has spread. The three main treatments include surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy. In some cases, surgery may involve hysterectomy — removal of the uterus and cervix. A radical hysterectomy involves removing additional tissue around the cervix to get negative margins, or areas where no cancer cells can be detected. This helps ensure that all the cancer has been removed. A radical hysterectomy is traditionally done for earlier-stage cervical cancers.

Typically, if cervical cancer is at a more advanced stage, it's treated with radiation and/or chemotherapy. If the cervical cancer has spread outside of the pelvis and has spread to distant organs, including the lung or the liver or other areas, then typically it would be treated with chemotherapy alone.

Is cervical cancer contagious?

Cervical cancer is not contagious, so women who have cervical cancer do not need to worry about spreading the disease. However, HPV — the virus that has been linked to about 99% of all cases of cervical cancer — is contagious.

One of the exciting developments that has a real potential to eradicate cervical cancer and other HPV-related diseases is the development of a vaccine that can prevent HPV infection. The latest version of the vaccine protects against nine types of HPV (there are more than 100), including the types associated with cervical cancer and genital warts. Ideally, Roswell Park recommends that boys and girls receive the HPV vaccine around the age of 11 or 12. But if you're older and have not been vaccinated, we still highly recommend that you do receive the vaccination.

Why Roswell Park for cervical cancer?

We provide multidisciplinary cancer care that integrates the expertise from several specialists, including gynecologic and radiation oncologists, dietitians, physical therapists, psychologists and more.

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Can cervical polyps be cancerous?

In most cases, polyps are benign (not cancerous), but if a cervical polyp is detected during a GYN visit, it should be biopsied. Removing a piece of the polyp or the entire polyp and looking at it under the microscope can determine whether it’s benign or cancerous.

Is there a link between cervical cancer and breast cancer?

Currently, there is no known link between cervical cancer and breast cancer.

Is there a screening test for cervical cancer?

Yes. The screening test for cervical cancer is called a Pap test. Using a swab, your gynecologist will collect cells from your cervix and examine them to look for any pre-malignant (precancerous) cells. During your annual GYN checkup, your gynecologist will determine when you should begin having the Pap test — and how often you’ll need it. Those recommendations are based on your medical history and results of any Pap tests you had previously.

Testing for HPV may also be used as a screening test, either in combination with the Pap test or by itself, depending on the patient’s age and risk factors.