What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Patients with cervical cancer often develop no signs or symptoms when the cancer is in its precancerous and early stages. For this reason, regular cervical cancer screening is important. Screening picks up early stages of cancer when there are no symptoms yet.
Cervical cancer symptoms can include:
- Vaginal bleeding between periods (spotting)
- Vaginal bleeding after menopause
- Menstrual bleeding that is heavier or longer than usual
- Pain during or bleeding after intercourse
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- Pain when urinating
It is important to see your GP in the first instance if you have one or more of these symptoms, or if these symptoms are persisting. Tell your GP about any changes in your body that you have noticed. Prior to your appointment, it is helpful to keep a record of your menstrual cycle and symptoms to bring to your appointment.
Abnormal vaginal bleeding can be the first noticeable symptom of cervical cancer. However, cancer is not always the cause of abnormal vaginal bleeding. Many benign and treatable problems can also cause abnormal bleeding. Most of the time these symptoms will have a less serious reason, however it is important to know the cause so you can receive early treatment.
Putting up with irregular bleeding is never a good idea because it can mask serious conditions that cannot be detected otherwise. In most premenopausal women who experience abnormal uterine bleeding, it is caused by a hormone imbalance or uterine fibroids. By contrast, in postmenopausal women, any bleeding is abnormal. Therefore, even a streak of blood (spotting) needs to be investigated and you should receive a referral to a gynaecological oncologist to investigate.
If the cancer spreads out of the cervix and into other areas of the body, it can cause other symptoms. Symptoms may become more severe depending on the severity of the cancer spread.
Advanced cervical cancer symptoms include:
- Excessive tiredness
- Blood in your urine
- Loss of bladder control
- Bone pain
- Lower back pain
- Leg pain or swelling
- Pain in the kidneys
- Changes to your bowel and bladder habits
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
It is uncommon to be diagnosed at such a late stage. Again, these symptoms can be caused by other conditions however if symptoms persist, you should contact your GP. Treatments provided earlier have a higher chance of success.
When you visit your GP
If you have symptoms that might be suggestive for cervical cancer your doctor will most likely:
- Ask questions about your health, including if you have ever had human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection
- Ask if you have a family history of cervical cancer
- Complete a cervical screening test (even if you are bleeding)
- Complete a blood test.
Your GP may also:
- Order an ultrasound to look at your reproductive pelvic organs
- Refer you for a colposcopy if your cervical cancer screening test is abnormal. At this examination sometimes a small biopsy can be taken from the cervix
- A gynaecological specialist may suggest to look inside your uterus by conducting a hysteroscopy (a thin tube with a tiny camera)
- An endometrial biopsy may be requested if abnormal growths are found (a sample of the uterine tissue for testing).
In Australia, cervical cancer has become less frequent. Just under 900 patients are diagnosed each year in Australia. This is due to cervical cancer being one of the most preventable types of cancer. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV infection, thus preventing HPV can also help to prevent cervical cancer from developing. Since 2007 in Australia, you can also be vaccinated against HPV, reducing the risk of both infection and cervical cancer.
However, the HPV vaccine is not 100% effective. It covers nine HPV strains and in the long term will reduce the risk of cervical cancer by 90% (but not 100%). Even if you have had the HPV vaccination, and are experiencing any of the above symptoms, it is still imperative to talk to a doctor. Regular cervical cancer screening is also still important for women who have had the HPV vaccine.
Can I get a second opinion?
You have the right to a second opinion. If you would like a second opinion, speak to your GP first, who can provide a referral to a gynaecological oncologist.
Talk to your doctor
Don’t delay a visit to the doctor due to COVID-19 for fear of contracting the disease. I urge anyone with symptoms for undiagnosed health conditions to present promptly to a doctor. Medical practices use rigorous infection control, screen patients and manage patient volume and flow carefully.
If you wish to read about treatment and outcomes of cervical cancer, please refer to the Cervical Cancer page.