Symptoms of Cervical Cancer

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cervical cancer symptoms

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Though there usually are no signs or symptoms of cervical cancer in its early stages, there can be and it's important to be aware of them. They vary from one woman to another, but may include abnormal vaginal bleeding, discharge, and pain. While screening tests are considered very good at detecting precancerous changes, they are not 100 percent effective. Be attuned to your body and anything that is out of your norm, and raise any concerns with your doctor—even if your screening tests are normal. 

Frequent Symptoms

Cervical cancer doesn't usually cause symptoms until the tumor is invasive. Early symptoms do not usually occur, but if they do, the most common ones include the following.

Bleeding

Bleeding is the most common first symptom of cervical cancer. Bleeding caused by cervical cancer can take several forms including:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding: Bleeding between menstrual periods is a common early symptom of cervical cancer and can occur at any time during your cycle. This bleeding, which comes from the uterus, is sometimes fairly light and can, at times, be easily overlooked. Make sure to talk to your doctor if you notice even a small spot of blood at a time when you are not having your period. Bleeding after menopause is also concerning, and you should see a doctor if you have any bleeding after you have stopped having your period.
  • Bleeding after intercourse: Bleeding after intercourse, even if just a small amount, should be evaluated. Post-coital bleeding may be related to another condition, such as an infection, but should always prompt a visit to your doctor—even if the bleeding is light.
  • Excess menstrual bleeding: Periods that are heavier or that last for longer than your normal periods are concerning, and you should mention this to your doctor. Keep in mind that every woman is different. For example, periods that last for five days could be of concern for someone whose periods usually last for two days or for someone whose periods usually last for nine days.

    Pelvic Pain

    Pelvic pain is another symptom of cervical cancer. The pain or pressure can be felt anywhere in the abdomen below the navel. Many women describe the pelvic pain as a dull ache that may include sharp pains as well. Pain may be intermittent or constant and is typically worse during or after intercourse. 

    Vaginal Discharge

    Abnormal vaginal discharge is another possible sign of cervical cancer. There may or may not be an odor associated with the discharge, and it may be of any color, light or heavy, intermittent or constant. Overall, vaginal discharge due to cancer tends to be reddish brown in color, but this can vary significantly.

    Rare Symptoms

    If cervical cancer grows, it can produce pressure on the other organs in the pelvic region, which include the bladder and the lower part of the colon. The pressure can interfere with the function of these organs and can also cause generalized pain and compression of the nerves and vessels in nearby regions.  

    • Back pain: Back pain, which can extend to the legs, may be caused by the pressure of the enlarging tumor on your spine or nerves. In these instances, your doctor would likely be able to see the tumor encroaching on the nerves or the spine with an imaging test, such as an X-ray or a CT scan. 
    • Leg swelling: Swelling in one or both legs can occur if the tumor puts pressure on the lymph nodes or on the veins, causing a backup of blood and fluid in the vessels of the legs. The swelling may occur over the course of just a few days. 
    • Bowel and bladder symptoms: Symptoms can range from pain with urination and/or bowel movements to incontinence of urine, feces, or both. This is the result of physical pressure caused by a large cervical tumor in the region of the kidneys, the bladder, or the colon. Rarely, pressure actually blocks the area, causing an obstruction that makes it difficult to urinate or to have a bowel movement. 

    Complications

    There are four different stages of invasive cervical cancer, and the most common symptoms of cervical cancer listed above would likely begin during stage II. Complications occur when cancer advances to later (higher) stages and affects many regions of the body.

    In stage III, the tumor spreads to the upper two-thirds of the vagina and to the regions around the uterus. These cancers may even spread to the lower third of the vagina and/or the pelvic wall, and may involve the kidneys. The tumor may block one or both ureters (the tubes that travel from the kidney to the bladder), causing the kidneys to become enlarged and possibly interfering with urine production.

    In stage IV cervical cancer, the tumor spreads beyond the region of the cervix to involve the wall of the bladder or rectum, or spreads to other regions of the body, such as the lungs, liver, or bones. 

    Some of the symptoms of stage IV cervical cancer may be related to the changes in metabolism associated with metastatic cancer, such as unintentional weight loss (a loss of 5 percent of body weight over a six- to 12-month period), fatigue, and nausea.

    When cervical cancer metastasizes to other regions of the body, symptoms may be related to the area to which it spreads. For example, bone and back pain may occur when cervical cancer spreads to bones, and coughing may occur if it spreads to the lungs.

    When to See the Doctor

    If you are experiencing any of the symptoms associated with cervical cancer, such as vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain, or bowel and bladder symptoms, you should make an appointment to see your doctor.

    Do so out of due diligence, but also know that what you are experiencing could point to another concern. Because the cervix is the lowest part of the uterus and the bladder and lower portion of the colon are nearby, diseases and conditions in any of these organs can have overlapping symptoms. And those issues are, in fact, the more common explanations for what's happening.

    Of course, cervical cancer is still a possibility. It is treatable when caught in the early stages, and the survival rates for cervical cancer are better the earlier it is diagnosed. Listen to your body and seek an evaluation if anything seems abnormal or aligned with cervical cancer.

    Preparing for Your Appointment

    Before your appointment, keep careful track of your symptoms. Pay attention to details such as when and how often you experience the symptoms; what medications, if any, alleviate the symptoms; and how long you have had the symptoms. All of this information will help your doctor make the right diagnosis and get you started on the correct treatment course, if necessary, as soon as possible.

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