7 Early Signs of Cervical Cancer, According to an OBGYN

Updated: Apr. 13, 2024

Once a leading cause of death among women, cervical cancer now presents a different story, thanks in part to growing recognition of these early signs.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 11,500 new cases of cervical cancer are identified annually in the United States. On a global scale, the World Health Organization classifies cervical cancer as the fourth most prevalent cancer among women, with 604,000 new cases and 342,000 deaths reported in 2020. It’s a disease that begins in the cervix’s cells—the lower part of the uterus connecting to the vagina. The primary cause of most cervical cancers is the human papillomavirus (HPV), a widespread sexually transmitted infection. The good news, though, is that the prognosis for cervical cancer has improved considerably thanks to regular screenings and HPV vaccinations. Knowing how to spot early signs of cervical cancer can also make a huge difference.

Scott Purinton, MD, PhD, chief of gynecologic oncology and director of robotic surgery at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pennsylvania, emphasized the importance of detecting cervical cancer symptoms in a 2023 piece: “It’s important to have an open and honest relationship with your gynecologist throughout the year, not just at your annual appointment. They can help you pinpoint what’s causing any new symptoms you’re noticing.”

Being proactive and informed about your health is vital, especially when it comes to recognizing the early signs of cervical cancer. Leading cancer institutions and obstetrics and gynecology experts have identified seven indicators that should never be overlooked.

Early signs of cervical cancer

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1. Abnormal vaginal bleeding

Recognized by the National Cancer Institute as an early sign of cervical cancer, abnormal vaginal bleeding is a critical symptom to be aware of. This can manifest as bleeding between menstrual periods, after sexual intercourse, or during post-menopause. While occasional spotting can be normal, any significant change in bleeding patterns, such as heavier than usual periods or random spotting, should prompt an immediate consultation with your healthcare provider.

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2. Unusual vaginal discharge

This change might include an unusual increase in the amount of discharge, a difference in consistency—perhaps becoming watery or thicker than usual—or a noticeable color change, possibly containing blood or having a foul odor. While vaginal discharge varies naturally among women and throughout the menstrual cycle, it’s essential to be attentive to any irregular or persistent changes. Reporting such changes to your healthcare provider is essential, as they can provide further evaluation and potentially catch cervical cancer in its early stages, improving the chances of successful treatment.

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3. Pain during intercourse

Medically termed “dyspareunia,” pain during sexual intercourse can be a telling early sign of cervical cancer, often indicating changes or abnormalities in the cervix. Dr. Purinton highlights the connection between sexual activity and the risk of HPV exposure. He cautions, “I usually tell patients that if you’re sexually active, it’s not a matter of if you’ll be exposed to HPV, but when you’ll be exposed to HPV. For most people, your immune system typically takes care of the virus without you ever knowing you have it.” If you experience pain during intercourse, it’s important to discuss this with your healthcare provider.

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4. Pelvic pain

Unlike the typical cramps associated with menstruation, this pain may be dull and constant or sharp and intermittent, occurring in the lower abdomen or pelvic area. It often signals that the cancer has grown to a size impacting surrounding tissues or organs, causing discomfort or pain. This type of pelvic pain, when unrelated to other known causes like menstrual cramps or ovulation, warrants immediate attention.

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5. Changes in menstrual cycle

These alterations might include irregular periods, heavier or lighter bleeding than usual, or menstrual cycles that are shorter or longer than your usual pattern. While variations in menstrual cycles can be normal for many women due to various factors like stress or hormonal changes, persistent and unexplained shifts in your cycle should raise a flag—especially if these changes are accompanied by other symptoms like abnormal bleeding or pelvic pain.

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6. Leg pain or swelling

The American Cancer Society identifies leg pain or swelling as a symptom of advanced cervical cancer. This occurs when the cancer obstructs blood flow or lymphatic drainage in the pelvis, causing discomfort in the legs. Although more common in later stages, persistent leg pain or swelling, especially if unexplained, should be promptly evaluated by a healthcare professional.

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7. Urinary or bowel changes

Changes in urinary or bowel habits can be signs that cervical cancer is affecting nearby organs. This could manifest as difficulty urinating, blood in the urine, or changes in bowel movement patterns.

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Preventive measures for cervical health

“Understanding cervical cancer is a big part in preventing it,” says Dr. Purinton—and prevention is just as essential as early detection. Engaging in regular Pap tests and HPV screenings is a fundamental step in preventing this disease. The HPV vaccine, while particularly recommended for younger individuals, remains an important preventive measure up to age 26, guarding against the HPV strains most often linked to cervical cancer. Additionally, safe sexual practices such as using condoms, quitting smoking, and leading a healthy lifestyle are important in reducing your risk.

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