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?
A Pap test, sometimes called a Pap smear, doesn't directly test for cancer, or even HPV, but it can find abnormal cell changes caused by HPV. These problem areas can be monitored by your doctor or nurse and treated before turning into something more serious.
There's also an HPV test that can find some high-risk types of the virus directly. The HPV test is sometimes used along with a Pap test, as a follow-up test when you have an abnormal Pap test result, or instead of a Pap test altogether.
Well-woman exams generally include a Pap test or HPV test as needed, starting when you turn 21 years old. Most people only need these tests every 3-5 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 suggest more tests or treatment. This testing can be another Pap test, an HPV test, or a colposcopy — a procedure that helps your doctor look more closely at your cervix to see if there are precancerous cells.
During a colposcopy, they might also do a biopsy – a procedure to remove a small piece of tissue from your cervix. The tissue is sent to a lab and examined for signs of cervical cancer.