Cancer is awful. It took 10 years until I didn’t think about it every day. Nobody should go through this. Nobody.” – Hans Rosling Like all other cancers, cervical cancer happens when there are abnormal cells that develop. In this case, these cells develop in the cervix. All women can be at risk of developing cervical cancer, and when these cells grow out of control they can be managed or detected with a Pap smear test.
According to Mayo Clinic, “Various strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection, play a role in causing most cervical cancer. When exposed to HPV, a woman’s immune system typically prevents the virus from doing harm. In a small group of women, however, the virus survives for years, contributing to the process that causes some cells on the surface of the cervix to become cancer cells.”
Bleeding or spotting
According to gynaecologist Dr Kecia Gaither, unexplained bleeding can be a sign of cervical cancer. “Symptoms of cervical cancer are vague, and can mean many things, but bleeding in between periods, bleeding after intercourse, or after menopause can all be signs of cervical cancer,” she explains.
This also includes heavier than usual menstrual bleeding, bleeding after a pelvic exam, bleeding after douching, or longer-than-usual menstrual periods.
There are many reasons for vaginal discharge, but Dr Gaither explains that if it is watery and foul smelling, there may be cause for concern. While having vaginal discharge that’s clear to milky white and stretchy is completely normal, fishy-smelling discharge could be a sign of an infection. Of course, abnormal vaginal discharge is more common than not, so don’t freak out right away.
Persistent pelvic pain
Lower back and pelvic pain can be linked to problems with the reproductive organs which include the cervix. Dr Gaither warns that “persistent back pain” is what to look out for. If you begin feeling it closer to your appendix, that can mean the cancer is in a later stage. Speak to your doctor immediately.
Pain during intercourse
Tumour growth throughout the tissue of the cervix will cause pain during intercourse for women with advanced stage cervical cancer. “Pain or bleeding from sex can mean many non-serious things as well,” Dr Streicher says. “It can mean inflammation of the cervix, a vaginal infection or cervical polyp – all of these are non-serious causes – which is why the general mantra is that if anything doesn’t seem right and is consistent, get it checked out.”
Abnormal pap smear
If you get abnormal pap smear results, don’t freak out that it’s cervical cancer right away. Your doctor will review the results to see what types of abnormalities were found. Not all cell abnormalities found in the cervix are cancer. Sometimes your doctor may order further testing to confirm results.
Loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss
As with many cancers, loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss can be a cause for concern. This symptom on its own does not mean cervical cancer, if you’re experience a wide array of these warning signs, in addition to a loss of appetite or weight loss, talk to your doctor.
Fatigue is a broad symptom that can come and go and shouldn’t be used as a marker for cervical cancer on its own. However, if you’re experiencing many of these symptoms along with extreme fatigue, it’s worth mentioning to your doctor.
Leg swelling or pain
Leg pain or swelling is a sign of cervical cancer, though it might not show up until later stages of the disease, says surgeon Dr Christine Horner. “Cervical cancer can spread to lymph nodes in the area between the hip bones. Cancer cells can also stop lymph fluid from draining away. This might lead to swelling in your legs due to fluid build up. The swelling is called lymphedema.”
This is less of a symptom, and more of a risk factor for cervical cancer. Cervical cancer occurs most often in women who have had the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that causes the production of two proteins – E6 and E7 – that turn off some of the tumour suppressor genes and allow the cervical lining cells to overgrow and develop mutations that can lead to cancer.
To date, there isn’t effective treatment to cure HPV, which is why the HPV vaccine is recommended for both boys and girls ages 11 or 12 years old.