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Cervical Cancer Symptoms Women Shouldn’t Ignore

Spotting, discharge, and pain are symptoms that women should not ignore. These could be symptoms of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer was once a leading cause of death for women but is now one of the most preventable and treatable forms of cancer. But we can’t be complacent. It’s essential to know what to watch for and how to prevent it in the first place.

Who is at Risk for Developing Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer most often occurs in women older than age 30, but all women are at risk. It starts in the cervix, the narrow section of the uterus connected to the vagina. There are several types of cervical cancer, but the most common type of cervical cancer – squamous cell cervical cancer – is caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is a very common sexually transmitted infection with no obvious symptoms of an infection like discharge or itching and once transmitted, HPV can take months or even years to develop into cervical cancer.

The development of a vaccine against HPV has also contributed to the reduced incidence of cervical cancer by preventing the transmission of HPV. The HPV vaccine is recommended for boys and girls between age 11 to 12, but can be given as early as age 9. Young adults can also receive the vaccine up to age 45, but it is best to get the vaccine as early as possible.

What are the Symptoms of Cervical Cancer?

Pre-cancers and early cervical cancers usually have no symptoms. Symptoms begin to appear at as the cancer grows and becomes metastatic, spreading to the lymph nodes, liver, lungs or bones. Symptoms to watch for include:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding which includes
    • bleeding after vaginal sex
    • bleeding after menopause
    • bleeding or spotting between periods
    • periods that are longer or heavier than usual
    • bleeding after douching
  • Unusual vaginal discharge
    • May be watery or blood-tinged
    • May have a foul odor
    • May occur between periods or after menopause.
  • Pain during sex
  • Pain in the pelvic region
  • Urinary symptoms
    • Pink-tinged or bloody urine
    • Burning or pain with urinating
    • Dribbling or leaking urine
    • Urinating frequently
  • Constipation or blood in the stool

Different medical conditions can also cause these symptoms, so it’s essential that women seek medical advice for any new symptom that does not go away.

Tips for Early Detection of Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer cases and deaths have declined significantly over the past 40 years due to women getting regular Pap tests. These tests detect changes that indicate pre-cancer. The American College of Obstetrics & Gynecology (ACOG) recommends the following for early detection:

  • Women aged 21–29 years should have a Pap test alone every 3 years. HPV testing alone can be considered for women who are 25 to 29, but Pap tests are preferred. 
  • Women aged 30–65 years should have a Pap test and an HPV test (co-testing) every 5 years (preferred). It also is acceptable to have a Pap test alone every 3 years.
  • Certain women may require more frequent screening, including those who are infected with human immunodeficiency (virus) or have a weakened immune system.
  • Many women can stop cervical cancer screening when they reach age 65 with normal screening tests or if they have had a hysterectomy. Check with your provider when it would be safe for you to stop cervical cancer screening.
  • You still need to continue regular Pap smear screening even if you get the HPV vaccine.

Remember,  HPV vaccination and regularly scheduled exams and Pap smears with HPV testing are the first steps to preventing cervical cancer. Don’t forget to recognize and share any new or unusual symptoms with your provider. Together, we can catch and treat this disease at its earliest stages.

If you have questions or concerns or may be experiencing symptoms of cervical cancer, schedule an appointment with your provider.

Original post date: Jan., 2021, Updated: July, 2023.

John J. Cote, MD
John J. Cote, MD

John J. Cote, MD, FACOG is an OB-GYN physician at CHI Health.

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