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Cervical cancer is a disease in which cancer cells are found in the tissues of the cervix. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus (where a baby grows). Cervical cancer is caused by several types of a virus called human papillomavirus (pap-uh-LOH-muh-veye-ruhss), or HPV. HPV is very common. It spreads through sexual contact. Most women's bodies are able to fight off infection with HPV. But in some women, HPV can cause normal cells in the cervix to turn into cancer. This usually happens over a period of time. Cancer that goes untreated starts to grow and spread more deeply into the cervix and to nearby areas.
The good news is that cervical cancer is the easiest female cancer to prevent. By getting regular Pap tests, your doctor can find and treat abnormal cells before they turn into cancer.
Women should have their first Pap test at age 21. After your first Pap test, you should have a Pap test every two to three years depending on your age and other factors. Ask your doctor about how often you need a Pap test. Women who have had the HPV vaccine still need to have Pap tests.
American Indian and Alaska Native women, as a group, have higher rates of cervical cancer than non-Hispanic white women. But rates vary widely across different parts of the country. For instance, Indians of the Southern Plains have especially high cervical cancer rates. American Indians and Alaska Natives also are more likely to be diagnosed with later stage disease than non-Hispanic white women. The good news is that cervical cancer rates among American Indian and Alaska Native women have been decreasing over time as more and more native women have routine screening. But, it's important to note that regions that have the highest rates of cervical cancer also have low rates of cervical cancer screening.
The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP) program provides free or low-cost Pap testing to women who don't have health insurance. To learn more about this program, please contact the CDC at 800-CDC-INFO (232-4636).
Content last updated: May 18, 2010.