Cervical cancer symptoms and risk factors: What to watch for
Each year, more than 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer. And though it most often occurs in women over age 40, younger women can get cervical cancer, too.
Like many types of cancer, cervical cancer doesn’t usually show any symptoms until the disease has spread to nearby tissues. But it’s important to know the signs of cervical cancer so you know what to watch for, says Kathleen Schmeler, M.D., co-leader of our HPV-Related Cancers Moon Shot™.
The most common cervical cancer symptoms that Schmeler sees are:
Abnormal vaginal bleeding: This could include bleeding between menstrual periods, bleeding after sex or bleeding after menopause.
Pelvic pain: This is typically constant pelvic pain. Or it may feel like pressure on your pelvis.
It’s important to keep in mind that cervical cancer symptoms tend to be vague and similar to those of other conditions.
“Just because you have these symptoms doesn’t mean you have cervical cancer,” Schmeler says. “But if you have any of these symptoms for two weeks or longer, see your doctor.”
Know your cervical cancer risk
While all women should watch for symptoms, certain women may be more likely to develop cervical cancer.
This includes women who:
Have an HPV infection. About 80% of people have HPV at some point, and most of these cases clear up on their own, but some HPV infections can cause cancer.
Have a sexually transmitted disease, including chlamydia or HIV, since these increase your risk for HPV
Have a history of untreated cervical dysplasia, or precancerous cell changes found through an abnormal Pap test
Have a weakened immune system
Were exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth
The good news is that not everyone with these risk factors will get cervical cancer. But be sure to talk to your doctor if you have any of these risk factors. That way, you can watch for cervical cancer symptoms and make sure you get the screening exams you need.
Don’t wait for cervical cancer symptoms to appear
Cervical cancer is most treatable when it’s caught early – before it shows any symptoms. And the best way to find it early is by getting regular Pap and HPV tests.
MD Anderson recommends women ages 21-29 get a Pap test every three years, and that women ages 30-64 get a Pap test and a human papillomavirus (HPV) test every five years. Women ages 65 and older should speak with their doctor about whether they need to continue Pap and HPV tests.
“Thanks to the Pap test, cervical cancer death rates have declined significantly over the last 50-60 years,” Schmeler says.
Protect future generations from cancer with the HPV vaccine
Schmeler adds that parents can protect their kids from cervical cancer by making sure both their sons and daughters get the HPV vaccine. The vaccine protects against several types of cancer, including cervical cancer.
MD Anderson recommends that boys and girls get the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12.
“My hope is that one day no woman will die of cervical cancer because everyone will have access to our excellent prevention and screening methods,” Schmeler says.