Cervical cancer symptoms are hard to notice, but tests can find abnormal cells before they become cancer. Regular check-ups are the best way to avoid cervical cancer.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Most people who have a high-risk type of HPV that can lead to cervical cancer will never show any symptoms until it’s already very dangerous. That’s why regular checkups are so important. In many cases, cervical cancer can be avoided by finding abnormal cell changes and treating them BEFORE they become cancer.
Once cervical cancer develops, the first signs include:
abnormal bleeding, spotting, or discharge
periods that are heavier than usual
bleeding after sex
Signs of advanced cervical cancer may include pelvic pain, problems peeing, and swollen legs. If the cancer has spread to your nearby organs, it can affect how those organs work too. For example, a tumor might press on your bladder and make it feel like you have to pee more often.
Some symptoms of cervical cancer can also be caused by other conditions, like yeast infections. If you have any of these symptoms, visit your doctor, nurse, or your nearest Planned Parenthood health center to find out what's going on.
How do you get screened for cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer screening is used to find infections or abnormal cells in your cervix that could lead to cancer. Pap tests and HPV tests are two kinds of cervical cancer screening. Both are simple and fast.
An HPV test finds high-risk types of HPV that can possibly lead to cancer. You may only get an HPV test, or you may have an HPV and a Pap test together (called co-testing). In some places where HPV tests are not as available, you may only get a Pap test.
A Pap test, sometimes called a Pap smear, finds abnormal cells caused by HPV — it doesn't directly test for cancer or HPV. If a Pap test finds abnormal cells on your cervix, your doctor can monitor or treat them so they don’t turn into something more serious. You may have an HPV and a Pap test together (called co-testing). You may also get a Pap test as a follow-up after a positive HPV test result.
Wellness exams usually include a Pap test and/or HPV test as needed. Most people only need testing every 5 years, since cancer takes a very long time to develop. Your doctor or nurse will let you know how often you should be tested.
How is cervical cancer diagnosed?
If you have an abnormal Pap test or positive HPV test result, your doctor or nurse may want to do more tests or treatments — like a colposcopy (a procedure that helps your doctor look more closely at your cervix to see if there are precancerous cells).
If they do a colposcopy, they might also do a biopsy — a procedure to remove a small piece of tissue from your cervix. Your doctor will send the tissue to a lab to test it for signs of cervical cancer.