Cervical cancer: symptoms and signs to look out for

It can be difficult to diagnose...
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  • The third week of January marks Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, which means it's an important time to understand how vital it is to attend smear tests, and to educate ourselves on the symptoms of the disease.

    Cervical cancer affects around 3,000 women every year in the UK, and it can be hard to diagnose cervical cancer symptoms as many woman avoid going for their smear tests.

    In fact, a recent survey, carried out by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, has suggested that in some areas in the UK, smear test attendance is as low as one in two among young women. While appointments dramatically increased following Jade Goody’s cancer diagnosis in 2008, they’ve since gone back down.

    The survey found that one of the reasons women choose to put off their smear tests is due to feelings of embarrassment. Gathering information from around 2,000 women aged 25-35, it found that as many as 915 had either delayed or never gone for screening.

    When asked what caused them to delay or miss a test, 72 per cent said embarrassment, while 69 per cent said they felt uncomfortable with a stranger examining the genital area.

    Dr Philippa Kaye, GP and ambassador of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, wants to reassure women that they needn’t worry, or let their fears get in the way of going for a test, “We want women to feel comfortable talking to their nurse and asking questions. It’s not making a fuss and there are many ways to make the test easier. Please don’t let your fears stop you booking a test.”

    “We’ve seen and heard it all before and want to put your mind at ease if you have questions or concerns. Ask the things you want to know and remember you can say stop any time – it’s your test.”

    Cervical cancer symptoms: what are they?

    Cervical cancer symptoms aren’t always obvious to spot, and there may even be none until it reaches an advanced stage, which is why regular cervical screening appointments are crucial.

    Cervical cancer symptoms to look out for

    • Unusual bleeding (any other time than your expected monthly period, even after menopause
    • Menstrual bleeding that is longer and heavier than usual
    • Pain and discomfort during sex or pelvic examinations
    • Increased vaginal discharge
    • Unpleasant smelling vaginal discharge

    Credit: Getty Images

    Advanced cervical cancer symptoms

    These symptoms usually start to occur when the condition has progressed and spread out of your cervix.

    • Constipation
    • Blood in your urine
    • Severe vaginal bleeding
    • Urinary incontinence
    • Bone pain
    • Swelling of one of your legs
    • Severe pain in your side or back caused by swelling in your kidneys
    • Changes in bladder and bowel habits
    • Loss of appetite
    • Weight loss
    • Lack of energy

    Understanding the causes of cervical cancer

    Potential causes of cervical cancer

    • Having unprotected sex with multiple partners
    • Smoking tobacco
    • Living with High-Risk HPV
    • Already infected HPV partner
    • Several pregnancies

    Cervical cancer and HPV

    • Your risk of contracting HPV is increased considerably by having unprotected sex (i.e. having sex without a physical barrier, like a condom)
    • Research suggests that around 80-90 per cent of cervical cancer cases occur as a result of a HPV infection

    What should I do if I’m worried?

    If you’re worried about cervical cancer, the first thing you should do is speak to your doctor and not ignore any symptoms.

    Going for regular smear tests could help diagnose the condition early – in fact, the NHS says 347 lives could be saved each year in England if all eligible women went for regular screenings.

    At the moment, all women registered with a GP are invited for cervical screening every three years if they’re aged 25 to 49; every five years aged 50 to 64.