The 10 Warning Signs of Cervical Cancer

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According to the American Cancer Society, there are an estimated 12,340 new cases of cervical cancer in America each year. Sadly, approximately 4,000 women die of this silent killer each year.

Women of all ages are at risk for cervical cancer once they begin having sexual intercourse. And the human papillomavirus (or HPV) is the most common reason why malignant cancer cells start to develop in the tissues of the cervix (the pear-shaped organ below the uterus).

As the second most common type of cancer for women worldwide, cervical cancer kills slowly, also making it one of the most treatable and preventable cancers. This is why regular pap smears and vaginal exams, should you encounter any of these symptoms, can save your life…

1. No Symptoms

One of the scariest things about this silent killer of women is just that—it’s a serious disease that often presents with no symptoms at all in its early stages. If you’re at heightened risk of cervical cancer, it’s a good idea to have regular checkups with your doctor and undergo screenings for the preliminary signs of the disease. Risk factors include HPV infection and sexual activity with multiple partners, or with a partner who has other sexual partners. HPV is listed as the most common cause of cervical cancer. Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke also increase your risk, as does having an impaired immune system as the result of other medical conditions.

As the cancer advances, you will likely experience noticeable early warning signs. These include pelvic pain, abnormal bleeding, and urinary abnormalities. It’s recommended that you have these symptoms checked out by a doctor immediately if they develop.

2. Pelvic Pain

Many women experience cramps at the start of their monthly menstrual cycle, and these cramps in and of themselves are normal and do not normally indicate the presence of cancer or any other serious condition. What you want to watch out for is unusual cramping, which usually follows one of two patterns. The first is pain that occurs at unusual times, and the second is the sudden onset of cramping.

If you start to experience significant cervical pain and cramping during other times of the month, it can indicate the presence of a cancerous tumor. Similarly, women who do not normally experience menstrual cramps often start to have them once a cervical cancer tumor develops. In both cases, you should schedule a visit with your doctor to find out whether or not something is amiss. Like other forms of cancer, your prognosis improves significantly if cervical cancer is detected in its early stages.

3. Abnormal Bleeding

One of the most common warning signs of cervical cancer is abnormal bleeding outside of the normal menstrual cycle. Of course, this varies from woman to woman; some women experience light spotting, while others may develop heavy bleeding that seems to come and go with no explanation. You should always consider unexplained vaginal bleeding to be a symptom of a potentially serious condition, and get a diagnosis from your doctor.

However, vaginal bleeding can indicate a number of other conditions, or it may have an entirely benign root cause. Other medical conditions known to cause vaginal bleeding include hormonal imbalances, pelvic inflammatory disease or an infection in your pelvic organs. The use of intrauterine contraception devices can also cause vaginal bleeding, particularly if they are not inserted correctly prior to sexual intercourse. The use of birth control pills can also cause vaginal bleeding, particularly when you first start to use them.

4. Painful Urination

Pain when urinating can indicate a problem with the cervix, but like many other symptoms of cervical cancer, it can also indicate a number of other problems. The type of pain associated with cervical cancer will usually seem to originate in the bladder, or present as a dull ache that only occurs during urination. These symptoms can indicate that the cancer has already spread, and is affecting your bladder.

However, these symptoms usually have other, less serious causes. Urinary tract infections (UTIs) can cause similar warning signs, and they are commonly seen in sexually active women. Yeast infections and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can also cause these symptoms; cervical pain is associated with STIs including gonorrhea, chlamydia and genital herpes. Your doctor will likely screen you for these conditions when you go for your checkup, if you’ve been complaining about this type of pain.

5. Unusual Discharge

Abnormal vaginal discharges can indicate cervical cancer. The type of discharge associated with cervical cancer has several definitive characteristics, including unusual textures, colors and odors. These discharges contain high concentrations of mucus, which contribute to their thickness and foul, pungent odor. If you experience this symptom, you should report it to your doctor immediately and have its cause investigated.

The color of your vaginal discharge can give you clues about its root cause. The mucus in discharges caused by cervical cancer will give it a yellowish or greenish hue, but it’s important to keep in mind that similarly colored discharges can result from chlamydia or gonorrhea infection. Watery or white discharges are typically caused by thrush infections, while white or grey discharges are often the result of bacterial vaginosis. Many healthy women will experience yeast, thrush or bacterial infections of the vagina over the course of their lives, and these conditions are easily treated with noninvasive interventions and medications.

6. Abnormal Menstrual Cycles

Most women have experienced abnormal bleeding or spotting between menstrual periods, and this happens for a variety of reasons. It can result from a range of non-serious illnesses, or it can happen after sexual intercourse, following a pap smear, or during periods of intense physical, emotional or psychological stress. However, regular bleeding between menstrual cycles can indicate irritation of the cervix, and possibly cervical cancer.

You’ll want to watch out for two particular characteristics in vaginal bleeding that is not associated with your menstrual cycle. First, you should be on heightened alert if it occurs regularly, for a period of three months or more. Second, you should pay close attention if you start experiencing vaginal bleeding when it has not previously been a part of your normal menstrual cycle. Sudden changes in regular patterns can indicate a serious problem when bleeding is involved, so don’t take these symptoms lightly.

7. Pain or Bleeding After Sex
Even those of us with healthy cervixes can experience some spotting after sexual intercourse, particularly if you use intrauterine contraception devices or latex condoms. When they are not inserted properly, intrauterine devices can irritate the tissues in your vagina, potentially rupturing blood vessels as the result of intercourse. Condoms can cause similar symptoms, particularly if their exteriors are not lubricated before penetrative sex.
Under normal circumstances, these symptoms happen on occasion, not with regularity. If you start to experience regular pain and bleeding during or after sexual intercourse, it can indicate an underlying health issue such as cervical cancer. This is particularly true if pain and bleeding are accompanied by other symptoms, such as thick, foul-smelling vaginal discharges and changes in urinary habits including painful urination and an increase in the frequency and urgency of urination. In such cases, you should have your cervix examined by your doctor.

8. Anemia
Anemia is a medical condition marked by a decline in the number of healthy red blood cells in the patient’s blood plasma. In patients with anemia, red blood cells are replaced by white blood cells from the immune system, reducing the amount of oxygen the blood delivers to the body. Typical symptoms of anemia include an unexplained feeling of intense fatigue and sudden weight loss linked to a mysterious decline in appetite.
Cervical cancer is known to cause anemia, robbing the body of red blood cells. If you notice a sudden decline in energy levels and you’re experiencing other symptoms of cervical cancer, it’s important to see your doctor right away. An anemic response is a warning sign that the cancer is progressing to a more serious stage, and it could result in other immune system deficits that could leave you prone to other illnesses and infections.

9. Urinary Incontinence
Sudden, unexplained changes in bladder and urinary habits can indicate the possible presence of cervical cancer. You may experience changes in urination including increased urgency and frequency, or urine leakage that occurs during unrelated activities; for example, you might leak a little urine if you jump or sneeze. In extreme cases, patients experience a complete loss of bladder control. These symptoms typically indicate that the cervical cancer is spreading beyond a localized area, and is affecting the bladder or other parts of the urinary tract.
You may also notice small amounts of blood in your urine. This condition is known as hematuria, and cervical cancer may be the cause, especially if you’re experiencing some of the other symptoms on this list. While mild urinary incontinence and changes in urinary habits are a regular part of aging, you should always have them checked out and explained by your doctor.

10. Back Pain
Pelvic pain or back pain, which is usually centered in the patient’s lower back region, is another symptom of cervical cancer. This pain may shoot down the patient’s legs, and in extreme cases, it can also cause swelling in the legs known as “edema.” These symptoms suggest that the tumor is spreading, or has reached a relatively large size. It’s important to note that this symptom has a very particular presentation; the pain will be constant, and will usually increase in intensity over time. It won’t normally “come and go,” and it will only temporarily respond to the use of over-the-counter pain medications.
The bottom line is this: if you’re an adult woman and you notice any unusual changes or symptoms affecting your reproductive organs, be sure to visit your doctor and get them checked out. Your chances of successfully treating cervical cancer are much higher if the disease is detected in its earliest stages.