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8 Silent Signs of Cervical Cancer You Should Never Ignore

Cervical cancer can often be prevented with routine Pap smears, HPV vaccinations, and regular gynecological exams. But about 13,000 new cases will still be diagnosed this year. See your doctor if you notice any of these potential symptoms of cervical cancer.

Symptoms are subtle

Arguably the worst part about cervical cancer? Most women with the disease have no signs or symptoms until it’s reached an advanced stage. That’s why the American Cancer Society recommends regular screenings with a Pap smear, beginning at age 21. The good news is that cervical cancer rates have plummeted over the years due to Pap tests and the use of  HPV vaccines, which fight the viruses that cause 90% of cervical cancers. However, it’s a good idea to also be on the lookout for these potential signs of cervical cancer.

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Abnormal vaginal bleeding

If you’re experiencing random bleeding in the middle of the month or irregular or heavier-than-usual menstruation, these could be signs of cervical cancer (although there are many non-cancer causes of bleeding too). Vaginal bleeding can also occur in postmenopausal women who no longer have menstrual periods. This, however, is not normal and could be a sign of cervical cancer or another problem. “The most common subtle signs of cervical cancer are abnormal bleeding of any kind,” says John Moroney, MD, associate professor in gynecologic oncology at the University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois.  Here are other cancer symptoms women are likely to ignore.

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Bleeding after sex

Bleeding after vaginal intercourse, known medically as post-coital bleeding, could also be a sign of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer occurs in the cervix, which is the lower, narrow end of the uterus that connects to the vagina. When a patient develops cervical cancer, the cells begin to multiply abnormally and rapidly, and can form a mass composed of cancerous tissue. This mass is what bleeds when a woman has intercourse. “We call it ‘friable’ like it wants to bleed easily,” says gynecologist Tracy Scheller, MD, medical director of the Graf Center for Integrative Medicine at Englewood Hospital in Englewood, New Jersey. “It wants to bleed when it’s touched. So, that’s why you can get that bleeding in the middle of the month [and] bleeding with intercourse.”

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Unusual discharge

Out-of-the-ordinary vaginal discharge that is pale, watery, foul-smelling, brown, or mixed with blood is a common sign of cervical cancer. It’s normal and healthy for discharge to change throughout the month, varying in thickness, opacity, and consistency. But if you have persistent discharge that has a different color, or that has an odor, it could be the result of the “dying tissue” created by cervical cancer, Dr. Scheller says. If you’re skittish about discussing certain things with your doctor, don’t worry: Here are the answers to embarrassing questions you’re afraid to ask your gynecologist.

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Pelvic and/or back pain

Advanced cervical cancer is rare, and back pain due to other causes is common, but one sign of advanced cervical cancer is pelvic or back pain. At this point, it’s possible that the tumor has grown so much that it’s now pressing down on the lower back or tailbone. “It’s like ‘a menstrual cramp’ [type of] back pain,” Dr. Scheller says. Make sure you’re also not ignoring these silent signs of bladder cancer.

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Pain during sex

There are many reasons for painful sex and most have nothing to do with cancer. But if you’re experiencing pain during intercourse, in addition to other symptoms, it might be the result of tumor growth throughout tissues and reproductive organs. In addition to cervical cancer, here are 14 things that ob/gyns also want you to know about ovarian cancer.

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A single swollen leg

People with cervical cancer have an increased risk of deep venous thrombosis (DVT) which causes a single swollen leg, according to Health Direct. There are a few types of leg pain causes—here’s when to take them seriously and the cause behind seven different types.

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Loss of appetite and weight loss

Like many other cancers, signs of advanced cervical cancer can include loss of appetite and weight loss. The tumor leads to the production of small proteins called cytokines. Some of these proteins not only suppress your appetite but also change some of your metabolism to break down fat at a higher rate than normal, causing you to lose muscle mass. As the cancer becomes more advanced, weight loss accelerates, Dr. Moroney says.  Here are the patient habits that bother gynecologists the most.

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Constant fatigue

If you’re feeling lethargic and unusually tired, it could be a sign of cervical cancer if it’s combined with many of the other symptoms. Here’s why: When your body is fighting off disease it works harder and as a result becomes tired. In a study published in 2017 in Gynecologic Oncology, almost one in four cervical cancer survivors reported being chronically fatigued 11 years, on average, after treatment. Make sure you know the truth and avoid believing the myths about ovarian cancer.

Sources
  • American Cancer Society, "Cervical Cancer: Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging"
  • John Moroney, MD, associate professor in gynecologic oncology at the University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois
  • Mayo Clinic, "Vaginal bleeding after sex"
  • Tracy Scheller, MD, medical director of the Graf Center for Integrative Medicine at Englewood Hospital in Englewood, New Jersey
  • Mayo Clinic, "Cervical cancer"
  • Gynecologic Oncology, "A study of chronic fatigue in Norwegian cervical cancer survivors"
  • Health Direct: "Complications of cervical cancer"
Medically reviewed by Tia Jackson-Bey, MD, on January 21, 2020