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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.
Latinas have the highest rates of cervical cancer of all groups of women. Latinas also are more likely to die from cervical cancer than non-Hispanic whites. Lack of screening is an important factor behind this disparity. In fact, 6 in 10 cervical cancers occur in women who have never received a Pap test or have not been tested in the past five years.
The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program program provides free or low-cost breast and cervical cancer screening 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.