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5 cervical cancer warning signs

By The Health News Team | January 19, 2023
Woman holding her stomach in pain

In the U.S., cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 13,000 new cases are diagnosed and 4,000 American women die from cervical cancer each year. These numbers are staggering, especially because cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers in women.

However, there is good news. There's been a steady decline in cervical cancer rates over the last 50 years.

“The decline is largely due to regularly updated screening guidelines and also the highly effective human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine,” says Dr. Melody Besharati, an OBGYN with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group.

The importance of early detection

According to the American Cancer Society, cervical cancer is most commonly diagnosed in women between the ages of 35 and 44, and it rarely develops in women younger than age 20. Known as a “silent killer,” cervical cancer often causes no symptoms until it reaches a later stage — which is why regular screenings are so important.

Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV, a common virus that can be passed from one person to another through sexual contact. The Pap test (or Pap smear) is one of the best ways to screen women for cervical cancer and test for HPV infection.

“Unfortunately, women diagnosed with later stage cervical cancers often haven’t kept up with recommended screenings,” Dr. Besharati says. “A cervical cancer screening involves a vaginal speculum exam, which takes a small sample of cells from the cervix to assess for the presence of abnormal cells and HPV. Early detection of cervical cancer increases the likelihood of successful treatment.”

5 cervical cancer red flags

In addition to having regular Pap tests and HPV tests performed for screening purposes, it’s important to recognize possible warning signs. Here are five common cervical cancer symptoms:

1. Abnormal vaginal bleeding
Many women have the occasional irregular period or spotting, but changes that aren’t typical for you could indicate something more serious. “A possible symptom of advanced cervical cancer is vaginal bleeding that’s unusual for you — including bleeding during or after sex, between your periods or after menopause, or having heavier periods than usual,” Dr. Besharati says.

2. Unusual discharge
While vaginal discharge is normal, the type of discharge you experience could be an indicator of vaginal health. With cervical cancer, you may notice discharge that is foul-smelling and pink, brown or bloody in color. It can be tough to tell the difference between discharge that's a sign of cervical cancer and the many other reasons you might have abnormal discharge. This is yet another reason to get routine screenings to rule out anything serious.

3. Painful sexual intercourse
Women with advanced cervical cancer may experience pain during sexual intercourse caused by tumor growth in your tissues and reproductive organs. Pain with intercourse can also be caused by a range of other things.

4. Pain in the pelvic region
Menstrual cramps are a common problem, but periods are not the only cause of aches and pains in the pelvic area. If you experience pelvic pain outside of your normal menstrual cycle, it may indicate a problem. The pain could be sharp or dull, spread throughout the pelvic area or concentrated in one specific area. Either way, pain is the body’s way of sending a warning signal.

5. Complications in bowel movements
Cervical cancer sometimes changes a woman’s urinary habits and bowel movements. If you have a persistent and increasing need to urinate, or if your stools change consistency over an extended period, these changes could be a sign that the cancer has spread to the kidneys, bladder or the colon region.

Many cervical cancer symptoms can also mimic other, less serious conditions, so it’s important to address any concerns with your doctor. Cervical cancer is highly preventable with the HPV vaccine, regular screenings and appropriate and timely follow up on abnormal results. Talk with your doctor if you have questions about your need to be screened.

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