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.
Explains that she had no symptoms and found out she had cancer through having an abnormal smear...
So they asked me to go to hospital to have a colposcopy which I'd never had before and that was really awful as I'm sure a lot of women would know. Sort of the full examination lights, cameras, action and all the rest of it. And I found that quite traumatic. But I went to see the consultant at the hospital afterwards for the results and I went on my own. And the consultant said that they'd found, not just abnormalities on the surface but actual cancer cells deeper down in the neck of the womb and that it would probably mean having a hysterectomy.
Describes how she sought further medical advice after she started having discharge as well as...
Well it was before then, this was when I was about 25 and I just presumed this was how things were. And it was only two years later when I started to have a discharge as well as the bleeding that had continued all this time and I changed to a different area, I went to another doctor to see what the discharge was that I was advised to have some tests. And in the meantime I was put on antibiotics and so was my husband to try and clear up the infection, and nothing happened. And I was away on holiday and the infection was so bad that I would wake up in a pool of something, which was rather embarrassing and I knew that there was something drastically wrong. And when I came back from holiday my doctor sent me for a colposcopy at the local hospital.
He took the colposcopy and as he was doing this he called the nurse over to look at the screen and advised the nurse what he could see, I didn't know what he could see, he then advised me he would be taking a biopsy. So he took the biopsy and, which I have to say I didn't feel any pain, and then he asked me to go straight back into his office to go and see him. So I got dressed, went back into his office, still not suspecting anything sinister, sat before his desk and he told me that I had cervical cancer, I would never have children and we didn't have to wait three weeks for the results, we had to work now.
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".
Describes how she rang NHS Direct after her symptoms of abnormal bleeding persisted.
And then at the end of the November I had another period that again seemed to go on for a bit of a long time and I was a bit concerned but not too worried. And then during the December it started that every time we made love I had bleeding and it was. There was obviously something not quite right I felt, but I still didn't feel it was serious enough to bother going to the doctor because I thought well may be this happens when you have the menopause. And I asked my mother and she said she had no idea because hers had happened very suddenly, she'd had a D & C and she stopped having periods and my elder sister's on HRT and most of my friends are on HRT so nobody seemed to know.
And I actually rang NHS Direct because I had had dealings with them a few months before when I'd had sunstroke one evening, I was quite impressed with their help and I asked them what they thought. And it was quite funny actually because I spoke to the same Irish male nurse as I had spoken to with the sunstroke and I thought I'd get put through to a female nurse and he said he'd have to go and talk to his supervisor and phone me back which he did. And he said we think you should go and see your doctor and we think you should go and see your doctor very quickly.
Some women saw their GP immediately or shortly after their symptoms began and were referred to a gynaecologist.
Explains that she consulted her GP having noticed bleeding after sexual intercourse and he...
Did he do any tests or examinations then?
No, no he talked to me and he referred me over. And it was a very quick appointment, I can remember things happened remarkably quickly. And that worried me as well because not a lot in the NHS happens quickly.
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.
Describes how her GP diagnosed the cause of her abnormal bleeding as the start of the menopause.
He did point out that there could be many other causes and that when the bleeding stopped, to go back have a proper examination. He changed my pill prescription and miraculously it kind of eased off. It wasn't particularly the periods that were heavy. It was just the bleeding that appeared in between. And it seemed to sort itself out. Now I believe I was probably stupid. I didn't go back for the check because it seemed to right itself. It never did go back to normal but with the conversation we had about my age and menopause, etc., I wasn't overly concerned.
With hindsight I can now see that I was very tired at the time um, didn't really realise it, I kept eating sweets and buying bags of crisps and things, as if I craved energy. I think with hindsight that was because I was becoming anaemic and it wasn't until a later date that I realised that. So at first it didn't seem too, too bad. Um, until one Saturday, now this, this all started probably late Spring and this was oh, um, it was late October, everything had been normal, I got up in the morning and suddenly there was blood just gushing. Then it stopped and stupidly I didn't think too much of it. You know he said it would be erratic. I went out that evening, I felt fine and it did it again, but this time it was pretty much uncontrollable. Came home, just sorted myself out and realised that I really did need to do something about it.
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.
She decided to go privately when her symptoms persisted and she was told there would be a long...
And she thought I had a polyp actually, this wasn't my regular GP, this was another lady, and she thought I had a polyp and referred me to gynaecologist at the hospital. I had a little bit of sort of messing about then because two weeks had went past and I was bleeding, nearly continuously and everything she was giving me weren't doing any good and then I phoned up the hospital to see when I might get this appointment through and they didn't even have a record of my letter from the GP. So I was kind of then in the middle, phoning the doctors surgery and phoning the hospital and trying to get something arranged.
And on one of these phone calls I said 'Just out of interest when, when will I be seen?' It was still about the end of April, beginning of May and they said 'Oh, we're booking for November, but we haven't got your letter so it will probably be December.' And I thought oh my God. I mean I wasn't worried because this GP had said 'I think you've got a polyp, its nothing to worry about.' But I just thought I can't bleed until December. You know, its ridiculous. But fortunately I went private, I mean God knows what would happen if I hadn't gone private. And I got an appointment through fairly quickly with the same consultant who it would have been still under the NHS.
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.