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The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on September 21, 2021.

Cervical cancer symptoms

Before the use of modern screening tools, cervical cancer was one of the most common causes of cancer death for women in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. Development of the Pap test and, following that, the human papillomavirus (HPV) test have significantly decreased cervical cancer rates.

Early warning signs of cervical cancer

Although some patients don’t experience any symptoms until cervical cancer has advanced, it may be possible to notice signs at an early stage. These include:

Vaginal bleeding—Sometimes cervical cancer mimics menstrual bleeding. The patient may notice a longer or heavier menstrual cycle than usual, or spotting or bleeding between periods. Bleeding that seems different in any way should be reported to a doctor. This includes any bleeding after menopause, especially if many months or years have passed since the patient’s last period.

Pelvic pain—Women may experience pain in their pelvic region, often for no apparent reason. Some feel pain in their back, particularly in the lower back. This may be a sharp pain or pressure and be located anywhere around the lower abdomen, below the belly button.

Vaginal discharge—It's normal and healthy to have a vaginal discharge that’s clear, milky or slightly yellowish in color. But changes in color, consistency and/or odor should be investigated. Discharge possibly related to cervical cancer may look red-tinged from small amounts of blood. Women should watch for a red-tinged discharge before or after the normal menstrual cycle and/or an increase in the amount of discharge.

Pain during sex—Some people experience pain during intercourse, or some bleeding afterward.

All of these cervical cancer symptoms should be discussed with a doctor.

Symptoms of advanced cervical cancer

Cervical cancer may spread (metastasize) within the pelvis, to the lymph nodes, or form tumors elsewhere in the body. Signs of advanced cervical cancer include:

  • Leg pain or swelling
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Back pain
  • Leakage of urine or feces from the vagina
  • Bone fractures
  • Difficulty urinating and having a bowel movement
  • Blood in the urine

Screenings for cervical cancer

Cervical cancer doesn’t typically cause noticeable symptoms in the early stages of the disease. Routine Pap screening is important to check for abnormal cells in the cervix, so they may be monitored and treated as early as possible. Most women are advised to schedule a Pap test starting at age 21.

The Pap test is one of the most reliable and effective cancer screening methods available, and women should have yearly exams by an obstetrician-gynecologist (OB-GYN). However, the Pap test may not detect some cases of abnormal cells in the cervix. The HPV test screens women for the high-risk HPV strains that may lead to cervical tumors. It’s approved for women older than age 30.

Although screening methods aren’t 100 percent accurate, these tests are often an effective method for detecting cervical cancer in the early stages when it’s still highly treatable. Women should ask their doctor about which type of cervical cancer screening is right for them.