It’s a cruel disease which kills thousands across Britain and the US each year. Yet awareness of cervical cancer’s tell-tale symptoms remains low, charities say.
To mark cervical cancer awareness week, MailOnline looked at the well-known, and less-so, symptoms to watch out for.
Cervical cancer symptoms to look out for include unusual vaginal bleeding, pain during sex and lower back or pelvic pain
Unusual vaginal bleeding
Lisa Jacques, lead specialist cancer nurse at online cancer resource Perci Health, said unusual vaginal bleeding is a key sign to watch out.
If you have regular periods, an example of unusual bleeding could be bleeding between periods, she said.
Other unusual vaginal bleeding can include heavier bleeding, bleeding during or after sex, or bleeding that results in fatigue and dizziness.
Ms Jacques said another warning sign could be bleeding after the menopause has occurred and you have stopped having periods.
Abnormal bleeding can occur because cancerous tissue and its blood vessels are fragile and bleed easily. As it spreads, healthy tissue can also become damaged and bleed.
However, there are many reasons you have unusual bleeding and it may not be cancer.
Other possible causes include hormone imbalance such as poly-cystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), structural abnormalities in your uterus such as polyps or fibroids, sexually transmitted diseases, or a range of other health problems.
You should see your GP if you have any unusual bleeding.
Changes to your vaginal discharge
While vaginal discharge is normal, a change in colour, thickness and odour could potentially indicate the disease.
The NHS says healthy vaginal discharge is clear or white, thick and sticky, slippery and wet and does not have a strong or unpleasant smell.
But a tumour can disrupt the internal lining of the vagina from producing this healthy discharge.
Cervical cancer can see it turn foul-smelling and pink, brown or bloody, Ms Jacques said.
The change in colour can be a sign of blood within the discharge, while a smell and chunks of tissue within it can be as a result of the tumour becoming infected.
However, bloody discharge does not mean you have cancer as it can occur close to a period, while ovulating or during pregnancy. And a foul smell could instead be a sign of bacterial vaginosis.
Ms Jacques said another common symptom of cervical cancer is experiencing pain or discomfort during sex
WHAT IS A SMEAR TEST?
A smear test detects abnormal cells on the cervix, which is the entrance to the uterus from the vagina.
Removing these cells can prevent cervical cancer.
Most test results come back clear, however, one in 20 women show abnormal changes to the cells of their cervix.
In some cases, these need to be removed or can become cancerous.
Cervical cancer most commonly affects sexually-active women aged between 30 and 45.
In the UK, the NHS Cervical Screening Programme invites women aged 25-to-49 for a smear every three years, those aged 50 to 64 every five years, and women over 65 if they have not been screened since 50 or have previously had abnormal results.
Women must be registered with a GP to be invited for a test.
In the US, tests start when women turn 21 and are carried out every three years until they reach 65.
Changes in cervical cells are often caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which can be transmitted during sex.
Pain or discomfort during sex
Ms Jacques said another common symptom of cervical cancer is experiencing pain or discomfort during sex.
According to Flo, a period tracking company, this pain can be felt in different ways. such as sharp, shooting pain, a burning sensation or cramping.
If your cervix is inflamed, which can happen during cancer, the pressure of sex may be painful.
Pain during sex could however mean a variety of health problems, such as an infection, the menopause, genital irritation or allergy from soaps or condoms, endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, irritable bowel syndrome or fibroids.
Lower back or pelvic pain
Lower back pain and pain between your hip bones (pelvis) are commonly experienced during menstruation.
But they could also be a sign of cervical cancer ‘when there is no obvious reason for it’, says Ms Jacques.
The pain is often caused by a tumour pressing on bone, nerves, or organs.
NHS guidance also states that pain in these areas can be a symptom of cancer and adds that you should also look out for tummy pain.
Lower back pain does not necessarily mean you have cancer and could be as a result of other health conditions or an injury.
A lesser-known symptom of cervical cancer can be urinary problems, such as a frequent need to pee.
Valentina Milanova, founder of Daye, a women’s health company, said: ‘The cervix is located underneath the bladder, so it’s likely that any irregular cervical growths, such as tumours, will have a direct impact on your bladder.
‘As a result, cervical cancer can sometimes impact a woman’s urinary habits, causing them to pee more frequently.’
Ms Jacques also says blood in your urine, loss of bladder control, persistent urinary tract infections (UTIs), and ‘any other changes to your bladder habits’ can be symptoms.
Urinary problems can also be caused by infections, pregnancy, childbirth, what or how much you have had to drink, enlarged prostate or menopause, among many others.
Constipation or other bowel problems
Cancer Research UK says bowel problems can also be a warning sign of cervical cancer.
It says: ‘Sometimes cancer can grow so that it completely blocks the bowel. The waste from the food you have digested can’t get past the blockage.’
The charity says this blockage can cause symptoms such as feeling bloated and full, vomiting, nausea, constipating, trapped wind and pain.
Bowel problems can be a sign of other mild illnesses or simply what you have eaten.
Lower back pain and pain between your hip bones (pelvis) are commonly experienced during menstruation (file photo)
Leg pain and swelling
Ms Jacques said leg pain and swelling is another lesser-known symptom of the disease.
Cancer Research UK says cervical cancer can spread to the lymph nodes in the area between the hip bones.
You can also develop tumours in your pelvic area which then press against the pelvic wall, causing pain.
Other causes of leg pain include injury, blood clots, poor circulation or varicose veins.
Leg swelling could also be as a result of being overweight, being pregnant, eating lots of salty food or taking certain medications.
Unexplained weight loss
Ms Jacques claimed that unexplained weight loss is another sign to look out for.
Moffitt Cancer Center’s advice page said: ‘Like many other cancers, cervical cancer can cause a loss of appetite.
‘Additionally, weight loss may be a problem regardless of the amount of food consumed.’
When suffering from cancer, the immune system has to work harder and the body produces small proteins called cytokines — which may lead the body to burn calories quicker than normal and break down fat and muscle.
However, unexplained weight loss can mean a variety of things, such as mental health conditions, digestion problems or other health conditions.
WHAT IS HPV? THE INFECTION LINKED TO 99% OF CERVICAL CANCER CASES
Up to eight out of 10 people will be infected with HPV in their lives
Human papilloma virus (HPV) is the name for a group of viruses that affect your skin and the moist membranes lining your body.
Spread through vaginal, anal and oral sex and skin-to-skin contact between genitals, it is extremely common.
Up to eight out of 10 people will be infected with the virus at some point in their lives.
There are more than 100 types of HPV. Around 30 of which can affect the genital area. Genital HPV infections are common and highly contagious.
Many people never show symptoms, as they can arise years after infection, and the majority of cases go away without treatment.
It can lead to genital warts, and is also known to cause cervical cancer by creating an abnormal tissue growth.
Annually, an average of 38,000 cases of HPV-related cancers are diagnosed in the US, 3,100 cases of cervical cancer in the UK and around 2,000 other cancers in men.
What others cancers does it cause?