Rates of cervical cancer have been climbing from the early 2000’s to today. The good news? It remains one of the most preventable cancers in women and the death rate from cervical cancer has decreased remarkably due to screening through pap tests.
Still, there are warning signs of cervical cancer to watch out for.
Cervical Cancer Causes
Early stage cervical cancer usually doesn’t have symptoms. Some causes to watch out for include:
- Multiple sexual partners
- Contraceptive use
- History of sexual transmitted infections (STI)
- Having multiple children
- Organ transplant
It is most common in women over 35 however if you have multiple risk factors, it’s a good idea to pay close attention and get screened regularly.
Once the cancer is more advanced, the following warning signs can be detected:
Abnormal Vaginal Bleeding
It’s common to mistake this bleeding for spotting, but it’s actually attributed to the cancer spreading to nearby tissue. See your doctor if you experience:
- Bleeding between menstrual periods
- Heavier menstrual periods
- Longer menstrual periods
- Bleeding after sexual intercourse
- Bleeding after menopause
- Bleeding after a pelvic exam
- Bleeding resulting in anemia-causing fatigue, dizziness
Foul Smelling Vaginal Discharge
Some of the cancer cells may die off if they lack oxygen which can lead to an infection in the tumor. This creates foul smelling vaginal discharge which may be pale, watery, brown, or mixed with blood.
Pain During Sexual Intercourse
In cases of advanced cervical cancer, women may experience pain during sexual intercourse because of tumor growth throughout tissues and reproductive organs.
Low Back, Pelvic or Appendix Pain
A sign of cervical cancer is pelvic pain, especially if the pain is continuous, not just at certain times of the month. Pelvic pain near the appendix doesn’t usually occur unless the cancer is in advanced stages. There will usually be other cervical cancer red flags before this occurs.
The cancer can begin to press against nerves in the pelvic wall, resulting in leg pain and swelling. While swelling could be a symptom of a number of medical issues, if accompanied by leg pain, this could be a warning sign of cervical cancer.
Prevention & Treatment
There are several screening options and preventative measures you can take to reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer.
Pap tests (also called pap smears) look for precancerous signs, like abnormal cells or changes in the cells of the cervix. These are the best way to catch cervical cancer in the earliest stages.
- Women start regular Pap tests at age 21 or sooner.
- From 21 to 29, women should get regular Pap smears every three years.
- Women between 30-65 years old should receive a Pap test every five years, along with HPV testing. If HPV testing is not done, then this same age group should continue receiving Pap smears every three years.
In the case of women who’ve had a complete hysterectomy, where both the uterus and cervix are removed, then they don’t need to have a Pap test or HPV test. But,in the case of a partial hysterectomy, where the cervix is left intact, the screening guidelines would be the same as any other woman.
Pap Test Results
In the case of an abnormal pap test result, it’s important to repeat the screening six months or a year later to ensure the results were accurate. Sometimes, Pap smears result in a false-positive or a false-negative, so it’s a good idea to screen again to be sure of the result.
In some cases the Pap test will come back normal, but the HPV testing is positive. The HPV should be tested again within one year as well. In the case of a positive result for an especially dangerous type of HPV, then doctors will move forward with a colposcopy, to more closely examine the cervix, and/or take a biopsy.
HPV (Human papillomavirus) Vaccine
The most common cause of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV) which is why the HPV vaccine is a helpful preventative measure.
If you have any of the symptoms listed above or have reason to suspect cervical cancer, contact your doctor to be tested right away. It’s important to stay on top of your pap tests so you’re being screened regularly in order to catch any abnormalities early before cancer develops.