Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer: Symptoms and tests


The cervical screening test is capable of picking up abnormal cell changes on the cervix at an early stage (before cancer develops). It may also detect cancer at a very early stage, before any symptoms have occurred. Abnormal bleeding from the vagina, such as between periods or after sex, is the most common symptom of cervical cancer.

Some women also have vaginal discharge that smells unpleasant, and discomfort during sex. In women who have had their menopause (who have stopped their periods) there may be some new bleeding. Pelvic pain can occur but it is not common. Though there are many other illnesses or conditions that can produce these symptoms, they should always be checked by a doctor so that if treatment is needed there is a better chance of it being successful.

Some women did not have any symptoms and their cancer was detected following further investigations after an abnormal smear (see Cervical abnormalities: CIN3 and CGIN module- Getting abnormal test results and Cervical Screening – abnormal test results). Several said they had bleeding between periods or after sex. One also had pelvic pain. Two described having discharge as well as bleeding which became more severe over time.

Some women who had had abnormal bleeding for a year or longer were not aware that bleeding between periods or after sex could be a symptom of cervical cancer. Several sought medical attention when symptoms were prolonged or became worse. A few sought medical advice when they had episodes of bleeding which they described as having a "flood".

Some women saw their GP immediately or shortly after their symptoms began and were referred to a gynaecologist.

Many of the symptoms of cervical cancer can also be symptoms of less serious illnesses or causes. One woman delayed seeking further medical attention for five months after her GP told her that her abnormal bleeding was the start of the menopause.

Another sought a second opinion when her symptoms, which her GP had diagnosed as caused by her contraceptive pill, persisted. A third decided to go privately when she had a long wait for her hospital appointment, after her GP, who had not examined her because she was bleeding, suggested she might have a polyp.

The cervical screening test(also known as a smear test), a colposcopy examination (a more detailed look at the cervix using a colposcope which is like a small microscope), and biopsy (a sample of cells from the cervix) are usually carried out to identify the cause of symptoms (see 'Cervical Screening module: Colposcopy examination and experiences and Cervical abnormalities' 'CIN3 and CGIN module: The colposcopy examination').

Last reviewed July 2017.

Last updated July 2017.

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