There are several reasons why cervical cancer is known as the silent killer among women. One is that the disease does not show any symptoms until its late stages. This makes it difficult to detect the disease early and makes treatment more difficult. “Cervical cancer is a slow-onset cancer, so by the time someone has symptoms, it’s usually more advanced,” explains gynecologist Lauren Streicher.
Cervical cancer symptoms are also non-specific. “Non-specific symptoms can mean a lot of other things, so having these symptoms doesn’t mean it’s cervical cancer. Get them checked out, but it’s probably nothing serious,” explains Dr. Streicher. The good news is that annual screening can help with early detection. “Because cancer develops slowly, an annual gynecological exam can help prevent any cervical abnormalities,” says Dr. Streicher. But if you notice any of these symptoms between annual meetings, it’s okay to get them checked out. (Just remember: Most of these cervical cancer symptoms are common and benign symptoms, so there’s no need to panic just yet.)
Bleeding or spotting
According to gynecologist Kesia Gaither, unexplained bleeding can be a sign of cervical cancer. “Symptoms of cervical cancer are vague and can mean many things, but bleeding between periods, bleeding after intercourse or after menopause can be signs of cervical cancer,” she explains.
These include normal menstrual bleeding, bleeding after a pelvic exam, bleeding after douching, or periods that last longer than usual.
There are many reasons for vaginal discharge, but Dr. Gaither explains that if it’s watery or foul-smelling, it’s a cause for concern. A milky, stretchy vaginal discharge is normal, but a fishy-smelling discharge can be a sign of infection. Of course, abnormal vaginal discharge is common, so don’t panic right away.
Persistent pelvic pain
Pain in the lower back and pelvis can be related to problems with the reproductive organs, such as the cervix. Dr. Gaither warns that “persistent back pain” is something to watch out for. If you start getting closer to your appendix, it means the cancer is in the late stages. Talk to your doctor immediately.
Pain during intercourse
Tumors in the cervical tissue can cause pain during intercourse in women with advanced cervical cancer. “Pain and bleeding from sex can mean a lot of things that aren’t serious,” says Dr. Streicher. “It could mean cervicitis, a vaginal infection or a cervical polyp – these are all non-serious causes, and if something is wrong and persistent, it should be investigated.”
Abnormal pap smear
If the results of the smear test are abnormal, do not immediately fear that it is cervical cancer. The doctor will review the results to see what type of disorder was found. Not all cell abnormalities found in the cervix are cancerous. Sometimes the doctor may order additional tests to confirm the results.
Loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss
As with most cancers, loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss is cause for concern. This symptom alone does not mean cervical cancer, and if you experience many of these warning signs in addition to loss of appetite or weight, talk to your doctor.
Fatigue is a broad symptom that may come and go and should not be used as a marker for cervical cancer alone. However, if you experience many of these symptoms as overwhelming, it’s a good idea to tell your doctor.
Swelling or pain in the leg
Leg pain and swelling are symptoms of cervical cancer, but they don’t show up until late in the disease, says surgeon Christine Horner. “Cervical cancer spreads to the lymph nodes between the hip bones. Cancer cells can also stop lymphatic drainage. This can cause swelling in the legs due to fluid retention. The swelling is called lymphedema.”
It has few symptoms and is a risk factor for cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is more common in women with human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that blocks some of the tumor suppressor genes, E6 and E6, which allow cells in the cervical lining to overgrow and develop cancer-causing mutations.