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January is Cervical Awareness Month: A Guide

photo of mother, daughters, and grandmother

Editor’s note: This blog post was medically reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD


As the fourth most common cancer in women, cervical cancer is a type of cancer that affects the cells of the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. 

Even though effective prevention and treatment methods are available, many women remain unaware of their risks or how to protect themselves.

As January is cervical health awareness month, this article aims to increase awareness of cervical cancer by sharing important information on reducing your risk (or the risk for women in your life) of developing this type of cancer.

We’ve also included a downloadable cervical cancer infographic that you can find at the end of this post.

Table of contents

Ezra’s Cancer Risk Calculator is based on the Harvard Cancer Risk Index

Cervical Cancer Awareness: Must-Know Facts

  • Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among women in 36 countries. 

  • Poor access to screening, early detection and treatment in low and middle-income countries is believed to contribute to the high proportion of cases of cervical cancer in these regions – approximately 90% of all cases. Pre-cancers and cancers that go undiagnosed and untreated can progress to advanced stages, leading to a higher risk of death from cervical cancer.

  • Cervical cancer doesn’t show any signs or symptoms in its early stages. But as it progresses, you might notice some unusual changes. These could include vaginal bleeding after sex, between periods, or after menopause; a watery, bloody vaginal discharge that’s heavy or has a bad smell; or pelvic or intercourse pain. 

  • More than 90% of cervical cancer cases are estimated to be caused by HPV (human papillomavirus). HPV is common, and people who get the virus do not develop cancer at some point in their lives. This means other factors may also contribute to the development of cervical cancer. For example, there is a link between cigarette smoking and an increased risk of cervical cancer

  • Regular Pap tests can help detect precancerous changes in the cervix, allowing for early treatment and prevention of cervical cancer.  Meanwhile, the HPV test detects the presence of the human papillomavirus, which can cause genital warts, abnormal cervical cells, or cervical cancer. A doctor may recommend the test if a patient’s Pap test is abnormal or if they are 30 years or older.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children (boys and girls) get the HPV vaccine at ages 11 or 12 (or even as young as 9). 

  • When caught in the early stages, the 5-year survival rate for cervical cancer is 92%. This rate drops to about 58% when cancer has spread to nearby tissues or organs.

  • Cervical cancer is preventable and treatable, making it important for women to be aware of their risks and to take steps to protect themselves.

  • Cervical cancer awareness month is typically observed in January because the United States Congress declared it as Cervical Health Awareness Month.  It’s a time when organizations and individuals work to educate the public about the importance of cervical cancer prevention and early detection. 

What is Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that can affect anyone with a cervix. It starts in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus. It’s usually caused by a virus called HPV (human papillomavirus) that’s spread through sexual contact. 

To reduce your risk of  cervical cancer, it is recommended that you get vaccinated against HPV and have regular screenings. If you get cervical cancer, treatments are available, including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. 

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Cervical Cancer?

According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, possible signs and symptoms of cancer in the cervix are: 

  • Spotting or light bleeding between periods
  • Longer or heavier than usual periods 
  • Bleeding or spotting after douching, a pelvic exam, or sex
  • Pain during sex
  • Increased vaginal discharge
  • Persistent, unexplained back and/or pelvic pain

Sometimes, the cause of these signs and symptoms could be something other than cancer. For this reason, seeing a health care provider is important if you’re experiencing the aforementioned signs and symptoms without any known cause. 

Heidi, a cervical cancer survivor, shares her experience in the video below. According to her, she didn’t know she had cervical cancer for almost ten years because she didn’t experience any symptoms. 

What Are the Risk Factors of Cervical Cancer?

A cervical cancer risk factor is something that increases one’s chance of developing cervical cancer. 

Known risk factors include

  • Smoking
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Weakened immune system
  • Sexual activity at a young age
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Long-term use of oral contraceptives

Studies also show a connection between the use of diethylstilbestrol (DES) in pregnant mothers in the 1950s and high-grade cell changes in the cervix of their daughters in comparison to women who were not exposed to DES while in the uterus. 

Get an idea of your cancer risk so you can take steps to prevent it through a cancer risk assessment tool. Ezra’s Cancer Risk Calculator is based on the Harvard Cancer Risk Index.

Get an idea of your cancer risk so you can take steps to prevent it through a cancer risk assessment tool. Ezra’s Cancer Risk Calculator is based on the Harvard Cancer Risk Index.

You can complete the Ezra’s Cancer Risk Calculator in 5 minutes. Try it now.

What Tests Are Used To Screen for Cervical Cancer?

There are a few different ways to screen for cervical cancer:

  • Pap test – This is the most commonly used test for screening. It is sometimes called a “Pap smear.” It involves taking cells from the surface of the cervix and sending them to a lab. Then, an expert will look at the cells under a microscope to see if they are abnormal.
  • HPV test – HPV stands for “human papillomavirus.” It is the virus that causes cervical cancer. An HPV test involves testing cells from the cervix for certain types of HPV.
  • Combination test – This involves doing a Pap and HPV test at the same time.

These tests are essential to preventive health care and should not be replaced by the HPV vaccine. The table below outlines the guidelines for cervical cancer screening by the American Cancer Society in 2020. 

Age 21- 24  No screening
Age 25-29 HPV test every 5 years (preferred)
HPV/Pap cotest every 5 years (acceptable)
Pap test every 3 years (acceptable)
Age 30‒65HPV test every 5 years (preferred)
HPV/Pap cotest every 5 years (acceptable)
Pap test every 3 years (acceptable)
Age 65 and olderNo screening if a series of prior tests were normal
Source: American Cancer Society

How to Reduce the Risk of Cervical Cancer 

There are several ways to reduce the risk of cervical cancer or catch the disease in the early stage. One of the most effective ways is through the HPV vaccine. 

Boys and girls at ages 11 or 12 should get the HPV vaccine. Getting the vaccine before one becomes sexually active ensures that one is protected from HPV infection, which can lead to cervical cancer.

Learn more: HPV vaccine guidelines by the Mayo Clinic 

In addition to getting vaccinated and having scheduled Pap smear tests, taking the following steps can also help reduce cervical cancer risk: 

  • Not smoking
  • Delaying sex
  • Limiting the number of sexual partners
  • Seeking treatment for sexually transmitted infections
  • Practicing safe sex and using condoms to reduce the risk of HPV transmission

It’s important to note that even if you take all of these precautions, you may still be at risk for cervical cancer. For this reason, regular screening tests are important.

The video below shares the story of Jasmine who found out that she had precancerous cells during a cervical cancer screening test. 

How is Cervical Cancer Diagnosed? 

If your Pap test has cells that look “abnormal,”  your primary care team may order more tests to figure out what is causing this. 

They will decide what to do based on your age, what your Pap test shows, and the results of any other tests you have had.

Follow-up tests might include:

An HPV Test

If you haven’t already had an HPV test, your doctor might order one. They might be able to do this on the cells already taken during your Pap test.

Another Pap Test in 12 months

Sometimes, if you wait a year and have another Pap test, you could find that the abnormal cells are back to normal. You might also have an HPV test at the same time.

A Colposcopy

For this test, a speculum is used to look at your cervix, just like during a Pap test. They will look more closely using a device that looks like a microscope. It also allows your medical team to see the cervix in more detail. 

During this test, the doctor or nurse might also take tiny tissue samples from the cervix. This is called a “biopsy.” Tissue from the biopsy will be checked for anything abnormal.

If it turns out that you have cervical cancer or precancer, there are effective treatments available. If your condition was found early, there is a good chance you will go into remission.

In addition, once cancer is confirmed, additional exams may be performed to determine how far cancer has spread and help determine the best treatment approach. These exams may include imaging tests and visual inspections of the bladder and rectum.

Learn more: How cervical cancer is diagnosed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology

Cervical Cancer Treatment Options

Treatment options for cervical cancer will depend on the diagnosis. 

Precancerous Lesions

  • Thermal ablation: uses heat to destroy the abnormal cells
  • Cryotherapy: uses freezing to destroy the abnormal cells
  • LLETZ (Large Loop Excision of the Transformation Zone): surgical procedure to remove the abnormal cells

Early Stage Cervical Cancer

  • Surgery: removal of the affected tissue, including the cervix and surrounding lymph nodes
  • Radiotherapy: uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells
  • Combination of both surgery and radiotherapy

Advanced Cervical Cancer

  • Radiotherapy
  • Chemotherapy: uses drugs to kill cancer cells
  • Combination of both radiotherapy and chemotherapy

Palliating Cervical Cancer (when it cannot be put into remission)

  • Treatment can include pain management, radiation therapy, and palliative surgery.
  • Emotional support, counseling, or joining support groups may also help to improve quality of life.

Find more information about cervical cancer treatment approaches and how to make treatment decisions in this guide – Treating Cervical Cancer by the American Cancer Society

Other Frequently Asked Questions About Cervical Cancer

Can cervical cancer go into remission?

Cervical cancer can go into remission if it is detected and treated in its early stages. However, the chance of remission decreases as the cancer progresses.

Sangeeta, a cervical cancer survivor in New Delhi, India, shares her story in the video below. 

Can men get cervical cancer?

Women, trans men, non-binary people, and intersex individuals with a cervix can get cervical cancer. 

Men can be affected by other HPV-related cancer (like cervical cancer) such as anal cancer, penile cancer, and oropharyngeal cancer (cancer in the back of the throat, including the tonsils and the base of the tongue) as well as genital warts.

Is cervical cancer hereditary?

Cervical cancer is not generally considered to be a hereditary disease. 

The majority of cervical cancers are caused by infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV). In rare cases, certain genetic conditions can increase a person’s risk for cervical cancer.

Can I get cervical cancer without having sex?

Yes. You can still get cervical cancer even if you don’t engage in sex or penetrative intercourse. 

HPV, the main cause of cervical cancer, can also be transmitted through close skin-to-skin contact

Can I get cervical cancer if I had a hysterectomy? 

If you have a partial hysterectomy (the top portion of the uterus is removed and the cervix remains), cancer cells may still develop in the cervix. 

Meanwhile,  if you have a total hysterectomy, where the entire uterus including the cervix is removed, it’s less likely that cervical cancer will develop. 

In some cases, precancerous cells may develop before a full hysterectomy is performed. This means the cancer cells may have already spread to other organs. For this reason, it’s still important to talk to your doctor about your risk for cervical cancer and discuss screening options. 

What’s the ribbon color for cervical cancer awareness? 

The cervical cancer awareness ribbon colors are teal and white. You can wear a teal and white ribbon to show support for those who have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, and to help raise awareness of the disease. 

Where can I find free or low-cost screening for cervical cancer in the US?

If you don’t have insurance or if you are low-income, you can get in touch with the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. Check out their website

Additional Resources for Cervical Cancer Awarenes

Summing Up

Cervical cancer is often without symptoms in its early stages. The good news is it can be caught early through regular cervical screenings like a Pap test and an HPV test. Early detection of cervical cancer is essential as it increases the chances of successful treatment. 

Every January is Cervical Health Awareness Month and you can support those affected by cervical cancer and the advocacy for early detection by wearing a teal and white cervical cancer ribbon. 

Every January is Cervical Health Awareness Month and you can support those affected by cervical cancer and the advocacy for early detection by wearing a teal and white cervical cancer ribbon. 

If you’re interested in a full body cancer screening test, learn more about the Ezra full-body scan. It scans up to 13 organs including reproductive organs like the uterus and ovaries. 

Have any questions or concerns? Our team of experts is here for you. You can email the team at hello@ezra.com

an infographic about cervical cancer