Reducing Risk for Gynecologic Cancers

Key Points

  • Each type of gynecologic cancer (cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal, and vulvar) has different risk factors.
  • Risk increases with age.

HPV vaccine

Photo of a woman drinking coffee
It's important to recognize the warning signs of gynecologic cancer and learn if there are things you can do to lower your risk.

Cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a very common sexually transmitted infection. The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers.

  • HPV vaccination is recommended for preteens aged 11 to 12, but can be given starting at age 9.
  • HPV vaccine also is recommended for everyone through 26, if they are not vaccinated already.
  • HPV vaccination is not recommended for everyone older than 26. However, some adults age 27 through 45 years who are not already vaccinated may decide to get the HPV vaccine after speaking with their doctor about their risk for new HPV infections and the possible benefits of vaccination. HPV vaccination in this age range provides less benefit, as more people are more likely to have already been exposed to HPV.

If vaccination is started before age 15, a two-dose schedule is recommended, with the doses given 6 to 12 months apart. For people who start the series after their 15th birthday, the vaccine is given in a series of three shots.

HPV vaccination prevents new HPV infections, but does not treat existing infections or diseases. This is why the HPV vaccine works best when given before any exposure to HPV. You should get screened for cervical cancer regularly, even if you received an HPV vaccine.

Screening tests

Screening is when a test is used to look for a disease before there are any symptoms. Cancer screening tests are effective when they can find disease early, which can lead to more effective treatment. (Diagnostic tests are used when a person has symptoms. The purpose of diagnostic tests is to find out, or diagnose, what is causing the symptoms.)

Of all the gynecologic cancers, only cervical cancer has screening tests that can find this cancer early, when treatment works best. The Pap test also helps prevent cervical cancer by finding precancers, cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately. A test called the HPV test looks for HPV infection. It can be used for screening women who are 30 or older.

Recognize the symptoms

Since there is no simple and reliable way to screen for any gynecologic cancers except cervical cancer, it is especially important to recognize symptoms and learn if there are things you can do to reduce your risk.

Talk with your doctor if you believe you are at increased risk

If your family has a health history of breast or ovarian cancer, your doctor may recommend genetic counseling and testing. It is useful for a small percentage of women who have a family history of these cancers. It is not recommended for all women, but it is important for all women to know and tell their doctors about their family history. Talk with your doctor if you believe that you are at increased risk for gynecologic cancer. Ask what you might do to lower your risk and whether there are tests that you should have.