Most women are aware that cervical cancer exists, but most of us probably don't know what symptoms to look out for. Although early cervical cancer usually has no symptoms, there are a number of sneaky signs of cervical cancer every woman should know about. Cancer is best treated when it's caught early on, and since many symptoms can be confused for other issues, it's useful to be aware of what could potentially be a sign of something worse.
"There aren’t that many signs of cervical cancer, which is why we encourage patients to routinely get screened," says Leslie R. Boyd, MD, assistant professor of gynecologic oncology at NYU’s Perlmutter Cancer Center, over email. "Once signs appear, it’s likely you already have a locally advanced disease. Signs can also be confused with other problems such as routine discharge and vaginitis, which people assume can go away with over-the-counter treatment or on their own."
Since cervical cancer can be silent, it's best to get regularly screened with a pap test. However, it also can't hurt to be aware of these six sneaky signs of cervical cancer, just in case. Not all these symptoms always mean cancer, but if you're experiencing anything abnormal, it's always good to go see a doctor to check.
1. Bleeding After Sex
Cervical cancer can cause bleeding after intercourse, as the cervix can become extra sensitive. "Cancer bleeds very easily upon touch, so any heavy bleeding experienced after sex that is persistent should be evaluated," says Teresa P. Diaz-Montes, M.D., MPH, FACOG over email.
2. Foul-Smelling Discharge
"When cervical cancer is far advanced, women can experience a distinctive odor that does not goes away easily," says Montes. This discharge may be pale, watery, pink, brown, bloody, or foul-smelling, according to MedlinePlus.
Cervical cancer can cause spotting in between periods, or it can cause periods that seem heavier or longer in duration, says reproductive endocrinologist Dr. Janet Choi, MD over email. "The cervix can become more friable and prone to bleeding with cervical cancer," she says.
4. Difficulty With Bowel Movements
"As the tumor grows, it will take up more space in the pelvis that will add to the feeling of growing pressure," says Boyd. "The cervix is in front of the rectum, which can make it more difficult to pass bowel movements."
5. Back Pain
This growth in the pelvis can also cause back pain. "Pelvic or back pain that appears and then persists can suggest a cervical tumor that is compressing adjacent organs," says Choi.
6. Leg Swelling
"Swelling of the legs could be a sign of several medical conditions, but when combined with vaginal bleeding, foul smelling discharge and pelvic pain, it could be a sign of advanced cervical cancer," says Montes. "This merits immediate evaluation." This swelling can occur as a result of a blood clot, which become more likely if you have cervical cancer, according to the NHS.