As the Surgeon General’s rather understated warning on packs of cigarettes states, smoking may be detrimental to your health. The familiar connection between cigarette smoke and diseases like lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease has been well established. Perhaps less well recognized is the effect of smoking on cervical cancer.
Numerous research studies over the past decade report a higher risk for cervical cancer in women who smoke. While the data is not completely consistent as to how much of an effect smoking has or how smoking promotes cancer in cervical cells, the message seems clear. Smoking increases a woman’s risk for cervical cancer.
“Women who smoke are about as twice as likely to get cervical cancer as women who don’t smoke,” states the American Cancer Society. Other sources report up to a seven-fold increase in risk for cervical cancer for smokers, and one study from Sweden found up to a 14-fold increased risk from smoking.
As a risk factor, smoking doesn’t cause cervical cancer. The clear cause of nearly all cases of the disease is an infection with one of a few specific types of human papilloma virus (HPV). However, smoking is considered an “accessory influence” to the development of cervical cancer, much like other known risk factors including having sex at an early age, having multiple sexual partners or having a weakened immune system.
How smoking leads to more cases of cervical cancer in women is not completely understood. Some researchers suggest that because cigarette smoke damages DNA, it makes cells more likely to transform into cancerous types when they are infected by HPV. It’s also possible that smoking may help HPV spread within the cervix by inhibiting immune responses that normally would attack and kill the virus.
A few recent studies claim that smoking is associated with behavior that makes HPV infections more likely to occur. The researchers cite examples such as lifestyles that involve multiple sexual partners or limited access to annual physical exams like Pap smears.