What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

It can be hard to spot cervical cancer, as during its early stages cervical cancer may not cause cause any symptoms. Cervical cancer will usually only have any signs or symptoms once the cancer has progressed to a potentially dangerous stage.

Unusual vaginal bleeding – in most cases, the first symptom of cervical cancer that is vaginal bleeding. Unusual bleeding can occur any time you are not expecting your normal period, including after having sex, but can also manifest as heavier periods than normal, or post-menopausal bleeding. Abnormal vaginal bleeding can also occur as a result of a number of other causes, such as STIs or trauma, so it is not a definite sign of cervical cancer. However, any unusual bleeding should be discussed with a doctor as soon as possible.

Other cervical cancer symptoms include:

  • pain or discomfort during sex
  • unusual vaginal discharge, which may contain blood

Advanced cervical cancer symptoms – cervical cancer, like other cancers, can spread and progress to a dangerous stage over time. If cervical cancer becomes invasive and grows into the surrounding tissue and organs, it can cause more symptoms.

Advanced cervical cancer symptoms include:

Pain – advanced cervical cancer may affect your muscles, bones, and nerve endings. It can damage nerves and cause severe pain, which may be managed with a treatment plan that includes painkillers, dependent on your tolerance to pain. Common areas to experience pain include the back, pelvis, and legs.

Weight loss and fatigue – cervical tumours produce proteins that are called cytokines, which can suppress your appetite and cause changes in your metabolism. These changes can make you to want to eat less and also cause your body to break down fat at a higher rate than normal, resulting in a loss of muscle mass. Eating less also means that there is less food to be converted into energy, which can result in tiredness or fatigue.

Leg Swelling – Cancer can also put pressure on or spread to the lymph nodes, which can cause body parts to swell due to a buildup of fluid - most commonly in the legs, feet, and ankles.

Other complications that can be caused by advanced cervical cancer include:

Bowel and bladder complications – cervical cancer can put pressure on organs in the surrounding region, such as the bladder, and colon. Complications can include difficulty urinating or constipation, loss of bladder control, and the presence of blood in urine.

Kidney failure – a cervical tumour can lead to a buildup of urine in one or both kidneys that can in turn into kidney failure. It’s hard to know if you have kidney failure from symptoms alone as it can cause a very broad range of symptoms, which also have lots of other causes.

Blood clots – cervical cancer, like other types of cancer, can cause blood to thicken and become stickier, which can increase the risk of blood clots. Large cervical tumours can also put pressure on the veins in the leg, helping clots to form. If a blood clot does form in the leg, this can cause symptoms such as swelling, redness and pain. These clots can also travel to the lung, which is very dangerous and potentially fatal – this is called a pulmonary embolus and can cause breathlessness and chest pain, especially when breathing in.

What other conditions could I confuse cervical cancer symptoms for?

Genital infections – a number of STIs, such as chlamydia or gonorrhoea, may cause pain during sex, discharge, or general discomfort. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, go and speak to a GP for a check-up.

Endocervival glandular hyperplasia – hyperplasia is a condition that causes an increase in the amount of tissue that is created when cells divide and reproduce, which can lead to the organs becoming enlarged. This tissue growth can be confused with tumours, such as those caused by cervical cancer, though hyperplasia may actually be a sign of precancerous changes to cells.

Endometriosis – endometriosis is a condition that causes the tissue that normally lines the womb, the endometrium, to grow outside of the womb - typically into the ovaries and fallopian tube. This tissue will build up, break down, and bleed every month in the same way as the lining of the womb, except when this tissue breaks down outside of the womb the blood cannot leave the body as a period and can become trapped within the body. This can cause symptoms such as pain during sex, pelvic pain, and painful, sometimes heavy periods.

Cervical polyps – cervical polyps are small tumours that can grow on the inner and outer surfaces of the cervix, and usually aren’t cancerous. Cervical polyps usually don’t have any symptoms but can sometimes cause unusual vagina bleeding, such as after sex or between periods, and can also cause vaginal discharge.

Cervical fibroid – fibroids are non-cancerous tumours that can grow in and around the womb, including on the cervix. Cervical fibroids can cause similar symptoms to cervical cancer, including heavier periods, lower back pain, and pain or discomfort during sex.

How long do cervical cancer symptoms take to progress?

It can take years for cervical cancer to develop – cervical cancer usually happens over a long period of time, typically around 10 to 15 years after cells in the cervix first start to develop abnormalities. The abnormal cell changes that occur before cancer becomes present is a condition known as dysplasia. These abnormalities can cause the development of pre-cancerous cells, which have a small chance to become cancerous.

How do you get cervical cancer?

HPV (Human papillomavirus) – HPV is the name for a group of over 150 related viruses, which spread easily through intimate skin-to-skin contact - especially during sex. HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer, responsible for around 90% of cases of cervical cancer worldwide. If you want to find out more about HPV, you can read our page on what HPV is here.

Smoking – smoking tobacco had been linked to cervical cancer directly and indirectly. Smoking weakens your immune system, which can put you at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer as the result of a HPV infection. Smoking may also directly lead to cancer because cigarettes contain carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemicals, which can be carried in the blood and cause abnormal changes in cells leading to cancer.

What else increases the risk of getting cervical cancer?

Combined oral contraceptives – a higher risk of developing cervical cancer has been linked to long-term use of the combined contraceptive pill. While short-term use has not seen any significant increase in risk, women who have used the pill for five years or more are almost twice as likely to develop cervical cancer than those who have never used the contraceptive pill. This higher risk is not permanent, and will go back down if you stop using oral contraceptives, returning to normal after 10 years.

Multiple pregnancies – while it is still unknown why exactly this is the case, women who have had more than 3 children are at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer. It is possibly due to hormonal changes during pregnancy, which may increase a woman’s vulnerability to HPV infections, or developing complications as a result of an infection.

An early full-term pregnancy – having a full-term pregnancy before the age of 17 can also increase your risk of developing cervical cancer later in life, being almost twice as likely to get cervical cancer compared to women who had their first full-term pregnancy at 25 or older.

A weak immune system – illnesses or medications that suppress your immune system increase the risk of infection, including with HPV.

How can you prevent cervical cancer?

HPV vaccine – the HPV vaccine prevents future infections of high-risk types of HPV that can cause abnormal cells to develop in the cervix, and are responsible for around 90% of cases of cervical cancer across the globe. The NHS routinely offers the HPV vaccine to girls aged 12-13, and will soon offer the vaccination to boys. Superdrug Health Clinics also offer the HPV vaccine  to boys and girls in all locations across the UK.

Safe sex – as HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer worldwide, reducing your exposure to the virus will reduce the likelihood you will develop cervical cancer. While condoms can help to prevent the spread of HPV, they are not 100% effective as HPV can also spread via skin-to-skin contact.

Cervical screening – it is important to regularly attend cervical screenings, so any abnormalities in the cells of the cervix can be detected before cancerous cells can develop and spread. The NHS offers cervical screening appointments to women aged 25 to 64 every 3 to 5 years depending on your age.

Stop smoking – smoking can cause cancer directly, as you are inhaling carcinogenic chemicals, or indirectly by making you more vulnerable to HPV infections and their complications. Reducing the number of cigarettes you smoke, or stopping altogether, can reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer.

Nutrition – a recent study found women with diets rich in vitamin A, C, and beta-carotene may have a reduced risk of cervical cancer compared to those that do not. Foods such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and spinach are good sources of these nutrients.