Cervical cancer symptoms, risk factors, and FAQs
We strongly recommend that you get regular screenings for cervical cancer, as symptoms may not be apparent in early stages.
The most common signs and symptoms of cervical cancer
Symptoms usually do not begin until the cancer becomes invasive and grows into nearby tissue, so we strongly recommend regular screening tests for cervical cancer. See your provider right away if you experience:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as bleeding after vaginal sexual activity, bleeding after menopause, bleeding and spotting between periods, and having menstrual periods that are longer or heavier than usual.
- An unusual discharge from your vagina, which may contain blood and may occur between your periods or after menopause.
- Pain during sex.
These signs and symptoms can also be caused by conditions other than cervical cancer, but don’t ignore them—if you do have cancer, waiting to get checked can mean it will grow to a more advanced stage and lower your chance for effective treatment.
We know that human papillomavirus, or HPV, is not the only cause—other risk factors can also influence which women exposed to HPV are more likely to develop cervical cancer:
- A diet low in fruits and vegetables.
- A weakened immune system. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS, damages a woman’s immune system and puts them at higher risk for HPV infections. The immune system is important in destroying cancer cells and slowing their growth and spread. In women with HIV, a cervical pre-cancer might develop into an invasive cancer faster than it normally would.
- Being overweight. Overweight women are more likely to develop adenocarcinoma of the cervix.
- Being younger than 17 at your first full-term pregnancy. These women are almost two times more likely to get cervical cancer later in life than women who waited to get pregnant until they were 25 years or older.
- Birth control pills (OCs). Research suggests that the risk of cervical cancer goes up the longer a woman takes OCs, but the risk goes back down again after the OCs are stopped, and returns to normal about 10 years after stopping.
- Chlamydia infection. A relatively common kind of bacteria that can infect the reproductive system, spread by sexual activity.
- Diethylstilbestrol (DES). A hormonal drug that was given to some women between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage.
- Economic status. Many low-income women do not have easy access to adequate health care services, including Pap tests. This means they may not get screened or treated for cervical pre-cancers.
- Family history. If your mother or sister had cervical cancer, your chances of developing the disease are higher than if no one in the family had it.
- Intrauterine device (IUD). Discuss the possible risks and benefits with your doctor.
- Multiple full-term pregnancies. Women who have had three or more full-term pregnancies have an increased risk. We still don’t know why.
Questions and answers about cervical cancer
A Pap test or Pap smear tells your provider if there are any changes to your cervix. To perform the test, your provider holds your vagina open with a speculum. Then she uses a small brush to get cells from your cervix and vagina. These cells are then examined in a lab. The best time for a Pap test is at least five days after your menstrual period.
No, most often cervical cancer grows and spreads slowly. However, it may spread quickly in some cases depending on the type and other conditions.
If it spreads, it typically spreads to the lymph system, liver, lungs and bones.