Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
As in many cancers, you may have no signs or symptoms of cervical cancer until it has progressed to a dangerous stage. They may include:
- Pain, when the cancer is advanced
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding (other than during menstruation)
- Abnormal vaginal discharge
- Pelvic pain
- Kidney failure due to a urinary tract or bowel obstruction, when the cancer is advanced
When to Seek Medical Care
The range of conditions that can cause vaginal bleeding are diverse and may not be related to cancer of the cervix. They vary based on your age, fertility, and medical history.
Vaginal bleeding after menopause is never normal. If you have gone through menopause and have vaginal bleeding, see your health care provider as soon as possible.
Very heavy bleeding during your period or frequent bleeding between periods warrants evaluation by your health care provider.
Bleeding after intercourse, especially after vigorous sex, does occur in some women. If this occurs only occasionally, it is probably nothing to worry about. Evaluation by your health care provider is advisable, especially if the bleeding happens repeatedly.
If you have vaginal bleeding that is associated with weakness, feeling faint or light-headed, or actual fainting, go to a hospital emergency department for care.
Cervical Cancer Exams and Tests
As with all cancers, an early diagnosis of cervical cancer is key to successful treatment and cure. Treating precancerous changes that affect only the surface of a small part of the cervix is much more likely to be successful than treating invasive cancer that affects a large portion of the cervix and has spread to other tissues.
The most important progress that has been made in early detection of cervical cancer is widespread use of the Papanicolaou test (Pap smear) and high-risk HPV testing. A Pap smear is done as part of a regular exam. During the procedure, cells from the surface of the cervix are collected and examined for abnormalities. Diagnosis of cervical cancer requires that a sample of cervical tissue (called a biopsy) be taken and analyzed under a microscope. This would be done if the Pap smear is abnormal.
There are various diagnostic tools that can be used to identify changes in the cervix. They include:
Colposcopy is a procedure similar to a pelvic exam. It is usually used for a patient who had an abnormal Pap smear result but a normal physical exam. The examination uses a type of microscope called a colposcope to inspect the cervix. The entire area of the cervix is stained with a harmless dye or acetic acid to make abnormal cells easier to see. These areas are then biopsied. The colposcope magnifies the cervix by eight to 15 (depends on the colposcope) times, allowing easier identification of any abnormal-appearing tissue that may need biopsy. This procedure can usually be done in your gynecologist's office. If a biopsy under colposcopy suggests an invasive cancer, a larger biopsy is needed to fully evaluate your condition. Treatment will depend on stage of the cancer.