Although cervical cancer used to be the leading cancer death for American women, it is now considered the easiest female cancer to prevent. This is due to HPV vaccines, regular testing for HPV (the virus that causes cervical cancer), and more advanced screening methods. Knowing the symptoms of cervical cancer can lead to early detection and quicker treatment.
Read on to learn more about cervical cancer.
The cervix is the narrow lower portion of the uterus that opens into the vagina. Cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection. Estimates show that about six million Americans have the virus, but most never experience any signs or side effects because their immune system clears the virus. However, certain strains of the virus can infect cells and cause problems such as genital warts or cancer.
Vaccination against HPV is advised for girls aged 9 to 26 for prevention against cervical cancer, as well as genital warts. It is only effective when given to women before they become sexually active. Gardasil is one such vaccine, and it guards against the two most common high-risk types of HPV. It also partially guards against the third and fifth most common types.
Although HPV will be effectively handled by the immune system in most women who are exposed to it, a small subset of them will go on to develop cervical cancer. For women who have matured past the 9 to 26 years window, or younger women who have not received the vaccination, pap tests are the key means for preventing cervical cancer.
As HPV is the precursor to cervical cancer, it is especially important to know its symptoms. Because HPV is a virus, it can be transmitted to another person even if the host shows no physical symptoms. And not all strains of the virus produce visible symptoms. Certain strains—6 and 11—form tiny, nipple-like bumps around the genitals that can form in clusters that resemble cauliflower. The bumps are normally itchy, but larger growths may have a discharge or bleed during sex.
Like other cancers, cervical cancer rarely shows signs in its early stages. Symptoms typically only become apparent when the cancer cells grow through the top layer of cervical tissue into the tissue below it. This is known as invasive cervical cancer.
Still, there are warning signs that women sometimes mistake as menstrual problems. The most common sign of cervical cancer is explained below.
Irregular vaginal bleeding is the most common symptom of cervical cancer. The bleeding may occur between menstrual periods or after sex. Sometimes, it shows as slight blood-streaked vaginal discharge, which often gets dismissed as regular spotting. Also, menstrual bleeding may be heavier and last longer.
Vaginal bleeding can also occur in postmenopausal women who no longer have menstrual periods. This is a major warning sign of cervical cancer or other problems and warrants a trip to the physician.
Along with bleeding, other types of vaginal discharge are common early symptoms of cervical cancer. It is often continuous because of the nature of the infection. The discharge may have the following characteristics:
- tinged with blood
While bleeding and discharge may be early signs of cervical cancer, more intense symptoms will arise in later stages. Symptoms of advanced cervical cancer can include:
Knowing the warning signs as well as your risks increases your chances of catching cervical cancer (or HPV) before it progresses. Risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- not getting vaccinated for HPV
- high number of sexual partners
- first sexual intercourse at a young age
- sex with a man whose partner had cervical cancer
- compromised immune system
- mother’s use of diethylstilbestrol (DES) during pregnancy
Vaccination against HPV is the best preventive measure to take against cervical cancer. As mentioned earlier, it is advised for women aged 9 to 26. Following that, regular screening is the best defense. Routine pelvic exams can help spot problems. For decades, doctors have used a pap test—a swipe of the cervix to collect cells for examination under a microscope.
Now, rather than a pap test, women under 30 are best served screening for HPV. The British Journal of Cancer published a study showing that these tests are more likely to catch cervical abnormalities and are much more effective.