Multifactorial Etiology of Cervical Cancer: A Hypothesis

Harry W. Haverkos, MD

In This Article


Cancer of the cervix is the second most common life-threatening cancer among women worldwide, with incidence rates ranging from 4.8 per 100,000 women per year in the Middle East to 44.3 per 100,000 in East Africa. Epidemiologic and clinical data demonstrate that human papillomaviruses (HPV), especially HPV-16 and HPV-18, play at least a major if not a necessary role in the etiology of cervical cancer. However, many investigators acknowledge that HPV is not sufficient to induce cervical cancer and that a multifactorial etiology is likely. HPV can be found in a growing proportion of patients with cervical cancer, approaching 100%, but is not yet found in every patient with disease. Other factors, such as herpes simplex virus type 2 infections, cigarette smoking, vaginal douching, nutrition, and use of oral contraceptives, have been proposed as contributing factors. In the first half of the 20th century, Peyton Rous and colleagues demonstrated the joint action of tars and Shope papillomavirus to consistently induce squamous cell carcinomas in rabbits. Using the Rous model as a prototype, one might hypothesize that some cases of cervical cancer arise from an interaction between oncogenic viruses and cervical tar exposures. Cervical tar exposures include cigarette smoking, use of tar-based vaginal douches, and long years of inhaling smoke from wood- and coal-burning stoves in poorly ventilated kitchens.


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