What causes cancer?

In most cases, the exact cause of cancer is not known. However, it is clear that certain changes in cells can cause cancer. These cell changes can be acquired or inherited. If the changes are acquired, they are caused by environmental factors and things people do, such as smoking. Almost all cervical cancers and some vaginal and vulvar cancers are caused by human papillomavirus, also called HPV, which is an acquired virus. However, if the changes are inherited, they are passed from parent to child through genes.

Who gets gynecologic cancer?

While all women are at risk for gynecologic cancer, this risk generally increases with age. Each year in the United States, approximately 71,500 women are diagnosed with gynecologic cancer and approximately 26,500 women die from it.

What increases a woman’s risk of getting gynecologic cancer?

There is no way to know which women will get gynecologic cancer. Each specific type of gynecologic cancer has a unique set of risk factors. These are discussed in detail for each cancer on the pages that follow. Human papillomavirus (HPV) infections that do not go away increase the risk of getting several types of gynecologic cancers. HPV is a common sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. It is one of the most well-established risk factors for these three cancers.
For more information about your risk, talk to your doctor, nurse, or other health care professional.

SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Inside Knowledge: Get the Facts About Gynecologic Cancer campaign

Who gets HPV?

HPV is a common virus with more than 100 different kinds or types. More than 30 of the types can be passed from one person to another during sex. HPV can occur in both men and women. At least half of all sexually active people will get HPV at some point in their lives.

Any woman who has ever had sex is at risk for getting HPV. Women are more likely to have HPV if they started having sex at an early age and if they or their partner have had sex with several others.

Condoms can lower your chance of getting HPV, if they are used all the time and the right way. However, HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom, so condoms do not fully protect against HPV.

How does HPV cause cancer?

Most of the time, people who become infected with HPV will not have any symptoms and the infection will clear up on its own. However, when the infection does not clear up, it can cause normal cells to turn abnormal. Over time, these abnormal cells can turn into cancer of the cervix, vagina, or vulva.

How likely am I to get a gynecologic cancer if I have HPV?

Many people will have an HPV infection at some time in their lives, but few women will get cervical, vaginal, or vulvar cancer—the gynecologic cancers that are linked to HPV.