Cervical cancer rarely presents with evident symptoms in its early stages. When symptoms are present, they may include atypical vaginal discharge, unusual bleeding or spotting, pelvic pain, and longer or heavier menstrual periods.

Cervical cancer develops in the lining of the cervix, the lower end of the uterus (womb). It may take months or years to cause symptoms.

Often, a confirmed unusual pap test result is the clearest sign of cervical cancer, although other causes for unusual results exist.

Cervical cancer often causes no symptoms in the early stages. When symptoms do occur, they often include:

  • Unusual vaginal discharge: Any unusual vaginal discharge may warrant a consultation with a healthcare professional, but vaginal discharge associated with cervical cancer is typically pale and watery and look bloody, pinky, or brown. It could also have an unusual odor.
  • Heavy menstruation: Cervical cancer can cause heavy and longer-than-usual menstrual periods.
  • Bleeding at unexpected times: Bleeding when you don’t expect it, such as between menstrual periods, after sexual intercourse, or after menopause, is a common early sign of cervical cancer.

These symptoms could also indicate other conditions, from infections to inflammation. Only a healthcare professional can provide an accurate diagnosis.

Symptoms usually start to manifest as cervical cancer progresses and spreads to other areas, such as the vagina, bladder, lymph nodes, intestines, bones, lungs, and liver.

As cervical cancer advances, it can lead to:

  • back pain
  • bone pain
  • fractures
  • leg pain
  • pelvic pain
  • urine leakage
  • swelling of one leg
  • loss of appetite
  • unintentional weight loss

Everybody is different, however, and signs and symptoms may vary from person to person. These symptoms may also signal other conditions. Only a healthcare professional can provide an accurate diagnosis after a comprehensive examination and assessment.

Cervical cancer staging

Healthcare professionals describe the progression of cervical cancer in stages. Early cervical cancer is labeled Stage 1A cancer.

In this stage, tumors are small, localized, and can only be seen under a microscope. Advanced stages indicate that the tumor has grown and spread to nearby or distant areas.

The first step to a cervical cancer diagnosis is a medical appointment. At your appointment, a healthcare professional will discuss your medical history, family medical history, and current symptoms. They’ll likely recommend tests like:

  • A pap test (pap smear): A pap test aims to detect precancerous and cancer cells. Healthcare professionals sometimes do it along with a . They do it by inserting an instrument called a speculum into the vagina to collect cells. They will examine these in a lab for changes that can indicate cancer.
  • Biopsy: If your pap test indicates that cervical cancer might be present, a doctor will order a biopsy. They’ll remove a small piece of cervical tissue and then send it to a lab for the detection and confirmation of cancer cells.
  • Imaging tests: Imaging tests can help doctors stage cervical cancer. They may include MRIs, CT scans, PET scans, ultrasounds, and X-rays.

Cervical cancer screening

Healthcare professionals use pap tests to screen for cervical cancer even in the absence of symptoms. They’re a prevention tool typically recommended to begin at age 21 and continue every 3 years until age 65.

Treatment of cervical cancer depends on the size and shape of the tumor, the cancer stage, and personal factors such as your age, overall health, and future reproductive goals.

Treatment options may include:

  • Loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP): LEEP uses electricity to remove small tumors.
  • Laser therapy: This treatment can burn atypical cells and tissue.
  • Cryotherapy: Extreme cold temperatures can destroy cancer cells.
  • Hysterectomy: This procedure removes the uterus.
  • Radical hysterectomy: The surgery removes the uterus and surrounding tissues, including the lymph nodes and upper part of the vagina.
  • Pelvic exenteration: With this procedure for advanced cancer, surgeons remove all pelvic organs.
  • Radiation therapy: Often an adjuvant therapy (complementary), radiation kills cancer cells. It can be a good option for tumors that are too large to remove surgically or for people who can’t have surgery.
  • Chemotherapy: The systemic therapy destroys cancer cells, and often accompanies radiation or surgery.

What are five warning signs of cervical cancer?

No specific five signs of cervical cancer exist, especially because early cervical cancer rarely shows signs. When symptoms are present, they may include:

  1. bleeding after sex
  2. bleeding between periods
  3. bleeding after menopause
  4. longer and heavier menstrual periods
  5. vaginal discharge that is watery, bloody, brown, or red and that has an unpleasant odor

What does stage 1 cervical cancer feel like?

You may not notice evident symptoms and signs of stage 1 cervical cancer. It’s common not to experience any symptoms or feel anything different during this stage.

What is the first indication of cervical cancer?

For many people, the first symptom of cervical cancer is unusual bleeding or spotting. An atypical result of a pap test is also a first sign of cervical cancer. The test may indicate the presence of precancerous or cancerous cells long before any symptoms develop. This is why screening is so important.

How long can cervical cancer go undetected?

Cervical cancer can develop very slowly and may take years before you notice any symptoms. Cervical cancer will sometimes develop quicker in people with weak immune systems, but even then, the progression may take a while.

Early detection is important, however, and regular screening is an effective prevention tool.

Cervical cancer doesn’t typically cause symptoms in its early stages. When it does, they may include menstruation changes such as bleeding between periods, after sexual intercourse, and after menopause.

Cervical cancer may also cause vaginal discharge that is watery, bloody, and brown or red with an unpleasant odor. Since early symptoms are so mild, routine pap smears are the best way to detect early cervical cancer.