Early stages of cervical cancers usually do not have any symptoms.
For most women, the first sign of cervical cancer is when changes are detected on a Pap smear. The Pap smear is a routine test that looks for precancerous and cancerous changes in the cervical cells.
Young women should receive Pap smears on a regular basis. This is a very effective way to detect cervical cancers before they become serious. Pap smear guidelines have changed in recent years. According to the National Library of Medicine (NLM), the guidelines are:
- You should get your first Pap smear at age 21
- The test should be repeated every two years.
- Women over 30, or with three consecutive negative-result smears, only need testing every three years.
- Women with new sexual partners should get a smear every two years. This is also true if their partners have new partners.
In older women, Pap smears may be combined with a human papillomavirus (HPV) test. This is because most cervical cancers are caused by HPV. If a woman does not have HPV, she is unlikely to develop cervical cancer in the near future. However, HPV is very common in young women. Most infections heal on their own within two years. Therefore, doctors do not generally test young women for HPV unless they have an abnormal Pap smear.
HPV can cause genital warts. However, there are many types of HPV. The strains of HPV that cause warts are not the same as the cancer-causing strains. Genital warts are not a symptom of cervical cancer. They do not increase your risk of cervical cancer.
However, it is possible to be infected with more than one strain of HPV. If you have genital warts, you may also have been infected with a cancer-causing strain. Practicing safe sex can reduce your risk of both types of HPV infection. But, condoms cannot entirely prevent HPV. The virus can spread from skin to skin.
Being infected with a cancer-causing strain of HPV does not mean you will get cancer. Most women with HPV will never have problems caused by their infections.
Women with cervical cancer tend not to have symptoms until the cancer becomes invasive. An invasive cancer is one in which the cells grow through the top layer of cervical tissue. They “invade” the deeper tissues below.
When women do have symptoms of cervical cancer, they can include:
- irregular vaginal bleeding
- vaginal discharge with an unpleasant odor
- watery vaginal discharge
- vaginal discharge tinged with blood
- pelvic or back pain
- pain during sex
- problems urinating
- problems defecating
- swelling of the legs
Irregular bleeding is the most common symptom of cervical cancer. This bleeding may occur after sexual intercourse. It may also occur between menstrual periods. It can even occur in a postmenopausal woman whose menstrual periods have stopped. Vaginal bleeding in postmenopausal women indicates a serious medical problem. It requires a visit to a doctor.
In younger women, minor bleeding irregularities can be easy to ignore. Spotting between periods may mean nothing at all. However, it can also be a sign of cervical cancer. It is important to tell your doctor if you have vaginal bleeding between periods or after sex. You should also contact your doctor if you suddenly start having:
- pain during sex
- difficulty urinating
- difficulty defecating
These are potential signs of cervical cancer and other serious health problems. They require prompt medical attention.