Cervical cancer affects young women more than most other forms of cancer. In fact, in the UK there are around 3,200 new cases every year (almost nine every day); tragically, there are approximately 850 cervical cancer deaths each year.
But it can be prevented. Primarily through screening, which is why it's so important for women from the age of 25 to attend their smear tests when the NHS invites them to.
"Cervical cancer often doesn’t present any noticeable symptoms until the disease is advanced. This is why it's vital that all women and assigned female at birth (AFAB) individuals attend their regular cervical screenings (smear tests)," Valentina Milanova, a women's health expert and founder of gynaecological health startup Daye tells Cosmopolitan UK.
Cervical screening tests for HPV, which causes the majority of cervical cancer cases, explains Milanova. "Fortunately, if cervical cancer is detected early it is one of the most successfully treatable cancers," she adds.
It's also important to be aware of the onset of any new symptoms, which may include unusual vaginal bleeding, pain during sex, changes to vaginal discharge or pain in your lower back/between your hip bones.
Research from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust previously showed that almost half of 18-24 year old women believed vaginal bleeding to be normal or expected, when in actuality it is one of the key symptoms of cervical cancer and should generally be monitored and investigated. Over half of the 18-24-year-old females surveyed who had experienced unusual vaginal bleeding admitted to the charity that they did not tell their GP.
It goes without saying that, in the most part, any of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by reasons other than cervical cancer. But on the off-chance they are caused by cancer, early detection is key. So pay attention to your body, don't be too quick to dismiss anything new as 'probably fine', and reach out to your GP for help and advice.
Here, Dr. Jan Schaefer, Chief Medical Officer at MEDIGO, and Valentina Milanova outline some of the signs of cervical cancer in more detail:
1. Irregular bleeding
"One of the most common and early signs of cervical cancer is irregular bleeding, which can happen between periods or after sex. Typically, this symptom begins to occur when the cancer cells grow on the tissue below the cervix. This is an especially alarming sign in postmenopausal women who no longer have periods," says Dr. Schaefer.
2. Unusual discharge
"Another warning sign of cervical cancer could be unusual vaginal discharge, as defined by colour, smell or consistency. This happens when the cancer begins to lack oxygen, causing an infection that leads to discharge and a strange smell," according to Dr. Schaefer. "While vaginal discharge can be a symptom of many other things, vaginal discharge that persists over a long period of time is definitely worth seeing a GP about."
3. Pain during sex
"Early stages of cervical cancer typically don’t have any symptoms, but pain during intercourse, and bleeding afterwards, could be a sign that the cancer is spreading to the surrounding tissues," explains Dr. Schaefer.
4. Pain or discomfort while urinating
"Cervical cancer can sometimes cause irritation or pressure on the bladder or urethra, leading to pain or discomfort during urination. This symptom should be monitored and investigated," advises Milanova.
5. Changes in bowel habits
"In some cases, cervical cancer may affect the nearby rectum or colon, leading to changes in bowel habits such as constipation, diarrhoea, or blood in the stool," according to Milanova.
6. Unusual weight loss
Dr. Schaefer says, "A loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss can be symptoms of a number of cancers, including cervical cancer. It is a particularly telling sign if weight loss persists, no matter how much food is consumed."
7. Sore legs
"When cervical cancer grows, it might start to press against the nerves in the lower back, which can lead to leg pain and some swelling. Swelling and pain separately can be a symptom of a number of different conditions, but together they could indicate cervical cancer," continues Dr. Schaefer.
8. Lower back pain
"Persistent pain in the lower back, pelvis or appendix area can also be a warning sign of cervical cancer, as pains in that region can be associated with reproductive organs," says Dr. Schaefer. "However, this is only a symptom of cervical cancer that has become quite advanced, so is only something to really worry about when it coincides with the above symptoms."
"While fatigue can be a symptom of many conditions, including cervical cancer, unexplained and persistent fatigue that doesn't improve with rest should be taken seriously and discussed with a healthcare professional," explains Milanova.
It's worth reiterating these symptoms could be indicative of a number of other health conditions. "The only way to know for certain if your symptoms could be cervical cancer is to get a smear test, which will detect any cancerous cells," says Dr. Schaefer.
Milanova adds, "If you or someone you know are experiencing any of the following symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor or your local sexual health clinic to investigate further."
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
You Might Also Like