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The signs of cervical cancer you don’t want to miss

4 minute read
A woman lying down on the ground clutching her stomach in pain

It’s estimated that 950 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer across Australia this year and while the disease is more common in women over 30, it can occur at any age.

The good news is that the five-year survival rate for cervical cancer is high at 74% and since the introduction of the National Cervical Screening Program in 1991, as well as in-school immunisations, rates of the cancer have decreased drastically.

However, it’s important to remain aware of any signs or symptoms of the disease, as early detection is key when it comes to effective treatment.

Types of cervical cancer

There are two main types of cervical cancer and the most common (accounting for 70% of all cervical cancers according to the Cancer Council) is squamous cell carcinoma. Much as it sounds, this type starts in the squamous cells that line the outer surface of the cervix.

Less common and harder to diagnose are adenocarcinomas, which develop from the glandular cells usually located higher up in the cervix.

Cervical cancer cells can spread to tissues around the cervix and as with most cancers, can spread further throughout the body to the lymph nodes, lungs and liver, which is why it’s so important to catch the cancer as early as possible.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

The Cancer Council explains that signs of cervical cancer are rare, but when symptoms do occur they may include:

  • Heavier periods or periods that last longer than usual
  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • Pelvic pain
  • Unusual vaginal discharge
  • Vaginal bleeding between periods, after menopause, or during or after sexual intercourse

Even less commonly again, the signs and symptoms of advanced cervical cancer include:

  • Excessive tiredness
  • Leg pain or swelling
  • Low back pain
A woman sitting on the couch grabbing her stomach in pain

These symptoms can be due to a host of other health conditions so it’s recommended that you see your GP as soon as you notice any of them to rule out cervical cancer.

Risk factors

When it comes to cervical cancer, there are risk factors. These include:

  • Sexual contact
    HPV is a common virus spread by genital contact, like that during sexual activity. That’s why it’s so important that all women who’ve ever had sex get the Cervical Screening Test every five years.
  • Smoking
    The chemicals in tobacco can damage the cells of the cervix, increasing the risk of cancer. If smoking is a concern for you or someone you love, check out our article How I successfully quit: Three ex-smokers share their stories for real life tips and tricks on quitting.
  • Long-term use of the pill
    Using contraceptive pills for five years or more may increase risk, however this risk decreases quickly once you stop taking the pill.
  • Low immune system
    A weakened immune system is less able to fight off the HPV.
  • Diethylstilbestrol (DES)
    If you’ve been exposed to DES, which is an artificial form of the female hormone oestrogen, you should have Cervical Screening Tests and colposcopic exams of the cervix and vagina each year. Talk to your GP for more information.

Screening is key to picking up early changes

Routine cervical screening is your best protection against cervical cancer. The newer tests (which you can access through your GP or local women’s health centre) offer even higher detection rates than the ‘Pap test’ or ‘Pap smears’ of the past as they detect the human papillomavirus (known as HPV), rather than simply looking for cell changes in the cervix.

Why is this important? Although many of us will contract the HPV at some point in our lives (and often without us even knowing it), the problem arises if your body doesn’t clear the HPV infection, as this can then cause changes to cells in your cervix and (in rare cases) develop into cervical cancer.

How often should you have a cervical screening test?

The National Cervical Screening Program recommends that women aged 25–74 have a cervical screening test two years after their last Pap test, and from then every five years.

Whether you identify as straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex, the Cancer Council recommends that if you have a cervix you should have regular cervical screening tests - HPV can be spread through any kind of sexual activity, not just intercourse.

Nervous about getting tested?

For eligible patients, there’s the option of self-collection tests to detect for HPV; for more information, visit the Government’s self-collection page.

While cervical cancer carries few – if any – symptoms, early detection is easy, and treatment highly successful. So if you’ve been putting off that appointment, it’s time to call your GP and book one in.

While you’re booking in for your cervical cancer check, find out what other checks or examinations you might be due for.

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