According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 12,340 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 4,000 women die from the disease each year in the United States. Fortunately, there is encouraging news: cervical cancer develops very slowly, which means it is treatable and preventable.
While a doctor can help prevent cervical cancer through pelvic exams including regular pap smears, women need to play an active role in preventing cervical cancer themselves. It is essential for women to schedule and follow through with appointments and to watch for early signs of the disease.
Below are common warning signs that may indicate the early stages of cervical cancer. Become familiar with them, and if you or a woman you care about notices them, make an appointment to see a doctor.
Early Signs of Cervical Cancer
Back Pain: If back pain is due to cervical cancer, it will likely be constant and will worsen over time. Over-the-counter pain medications may relieve back pain, but only temporarily. See a doctor about chronic or worsening back pain.
Issues with Urination: If you urinate more often, have pain during urination, experience loss of bladder control (incontinence), notice blood in your urine, or have urine that is an unusual color, see a doctor.
Leg Pain: If you have ongoing leg pain, consider making an appointment with a doctor. Some women who have cervical cancer experience leg pain due to blocked blood flow and resultant swelling.
Painful Intercourse: If you have pain upon intercourse, it could be due to something as simple as hormones. But make an appointment to rule out issues like sexually transmitted disease or cervical cancer.
Pelvic Pain: If cramps happen at unusual times, come on suddenly, or develop if you have never had cramps before, it may be due to hormonal changes or could indicate early cervical cancer.
Vaginal Bleeding: The most common early sign of cervical cancer is unusual vaginal bleeding. Women who are post-menopausal and experience vaginal bleeding or who are pre-menopausal and have bleeding between periods should see a doctor.
Vaginal Discharge: A small amount of clear to white, odorless, vaginal discharge is normal; other vaginal discharge is not. Unusual discharge could be an early signal of cervical cancer.
Weight Loss and Fatigue: If you feel tired and begin to lose weight, you may have anemia. Anemia can be a sign of cancer, as red blood cells are replaced with white blood cells which fight disease.
Risk Factors for Cervical Cancer
Risk of cervical cancer is higher for women who:
- Have an impaired immune system
- Have human papillomavirus (HPV) as most cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV
- Have had sexual activity with multiple partners
- Smoke or are exposed to secondhand smoke