Cervical Cancer: Causes, Symptoms & Diagnosis

In India, cervical cancer is still the second-most common cancer in women. Cervical cancer is one of the cancers that can be cured, if detected early. This disease can also be prevented with regular PAP smear.

The cervix is cylindrical in shape and lies at the lower end of the uterus, which connects the uterus to the vagina. The cervix is divided into two parts: the lower part is called ectocervix and this lies within the vagina. The upper part is called endocervix. Most cervical cancers occur in the region where endocervix and ectocervix meet. Almost all cervical cancer cases are attributed to the Human Papillomavirus also called as HPV infection.

Causes of cervical cancer

Main cause for cervical cancer is HPV infection and this is a sexually transmitted disease. There are generally hundreds of such virus but, two types of HPV infection  16 and 18 cause 70% of all cervical cancers across the globe. Other factors that put women at risk of cervical cancer are early marriage, multiple pregnancies, multiple sexual partners, low genital hygiene, contraceptives, and lack of awareness. This may account for India having the highest count (22 per 1,00,000) of cervical cancer cases among neighbouring countries.

Cancer of the cervix can be prevented by vaccinating young females against the HPV. Regular screening and timely treatment of precancerous cervical lesions can go a long way in early diagnosis and in preventing the disease. As noted above, cervical cancer can be cured if detected early. However, women also need to know the symptoms of the disease, so they can take immediate actions.

Symptoms of cervical cancer

You may not have any symptoms during the initial stages of cancer, but you can experience various symptoms as the cancerous cells grow in the cervix. The most common symptom of cervical cancer is untimely vaginal bleeding, you need to see your doctor immediately if you have:

  • Bleeding between periods
  • Bleeding heavily during menstruation
  • Having longer periods
  • Bleeding after intercourse
  • Bleeding after menopause
  • Have excessive bleeding that can cause anaemia (fatigue & dizziness)

Other symptoms could be:

  • Foul-smelling vaginal discharge: If you have vaginal discharge, which is continuous and has a bad odor, it may be a sign of cervical cancer. The discharge can be watery, pale or brown or may contain some blood.
  • Pain during intercourse: if you experience pain during sexual intercourse, it could be due to cervical cancer. Note – pain during intercourse could be for various reasons other than cervical cancer, you need to consult your doctor and seek their advice.
  • Pelvic or low back pain: issues of the reproductive organs like the cervix can sometimes cause pain in the lower back or the pelvis. Pelvic pain, especially if continuous could be a sign of cervical cancer. There are usually other signals before the actual pain occurs.
  • Leg pain: as the cancer grows, it may start pressing against the nerves of the pelvic wall. This can cause what may seem like unexplained pain in the leg, sometimes accompanied by swelling. Though swelling can be the result of other medical problems, swelling accompanied by pain can be a sign of cervical cancer.
  • Loss of appetite: loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss is a symptom of many cancers, including cancer of the cervix. If the cancer exists, the weight loss may continue irrespective of the amount of food consumed.
  • Bowel and bladder issues: as cancer involves the bladder it can cause pain while passing urine or unable to empty bladder fully and sometimes can be difficult to pass urine. Diarrhoea or bleeding while passing stools are late signs of cervical cancer.

All of the symptoms mentioned above can also be the result of other medical conditions other than cancer. However, since the list of disorders includes cervical cancer, you should be screened for cervical cancer as well.

Diagnosis of cervical cancer

If you have any of the symptoms mentioned above, you should immediately book an appointment with a gynaecological oncologist. As mentioned above, and cannot be repeated enough, getting the symptoms explained in time and getting an early diagnosis is key for getting cured and having a quality life.

Your gyne-oncologist may subject you to one or more of the following tests:

  1. If your symptoms are suggestive of cervical cancer then your doctor will conduct an internal examination of your vagina to visualize the cervix (also called as per-vaginal examination). If your cervix looks abnormal, then a small piece of cervical tissue will be taken and studied in a laboratory to confirm the presence or absence of cancer.
  2. The specialist may also advise you to undergo a colposcopy. A colposcopy is the procedure that uses a magnifying device called a colposcope to take a better look at your cervix. The colposcope shines a light onto the cervix through the vagina. This instrument enlarges the view of the cervix on an external monitor.
  3. If the tests confirm cervical cancer, the next step is to evaluate the spread and extent of the disease. This will involve further tests like ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, X-ray, blood tests, etc.

In conclusion, it is worth repeating that cervical cancer can be prevented by regular screening. Early detection has helped cure a vast majority of cervical cancer cases. Do not hesitate to seek your doctor’s advice if you find yourself experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above.