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Cervical Cancer Symptoms

Cervical cancer is a cancer that originates in the cells of the cervix, an organ, which connects the uterus to the vagina.

Abdominal pain is a common cervical cancer symptom. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Abdominal pain is a common cervical cancer symptom.

Cervical Cancer Symptoms

Cervical cancer is a cancer that originates in the cells of the cervix, an organ, which connects the uterus to the vagina. It is a slow growing cancer and can grow for years before cervical cancer symptoms are detectable. The disease begins when a series of mutations in cervical cells cause abnormal cells to develop. These cells can then multiply to form a tumor. Like many cancers, cervical cancer cells can also leave the cervix and grow in other organs and tissues, called metastatic cervical cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC), cervical cancer used to be the number one cause of cancer death among American women. However, fatality rates have fallen dramatically in recent years, which the CDC attributes to an increase in Pap smear testing resulting in earlier detection of the disease. The symptoms vary depending on how far the cancer has spread in the cervix and to other parts of the body.

Types of Cervical Cancer

Squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma are the two types of cervical cancer. Squamous cell carcinomas develop in the upper part of the cervix that connects to the uterus, while adenocarcinomas originate in the gland cells that produce mucus. According to the American Cancer Society, squamous cell carcinoma make up about 80 to 90 percent of cervical cancers. In rare cases, cervical cancers combine squamous cell carcinomas and adencarcinomas.

Cervical Cancer Stages

The stage of cancer determines how the disease will be treated and the likelihood of successful treatment. Cervical cancer has the following five stages with stage 0 being the earliest and stage IV being the latest and most serious stage:

  • Stage 0 is contained in the lining of the cervix
  • Stage I has spread into the cervix from the top layer of cells, but has not spread outside the cervix
  • Stage II has spread to the upper vagina, but not to the lower vagina or to other tissues
  • Stage III has grown into the lower vagina or spread to the pelvic wall, and possibly invaded nearby lymph nodes
  • Stage IV has metastasized to the rectum, bladder or distant organs

Early-Stage Cervical Cancer Symptoms

According to the Mayo Clinic, cervical cancer does not usually produce symptoms in the early stages of the disease when the cancer has not yet left the surface of the cervix and invaded the upper vagina or other tissues or organs. However, some symptoms can indicate a possibility of early-stage disease. An abnormal, continuous vaginal discharge can be one early-stage cervical cancer symptom. The discharge may be brown, pink or pale. It can be bloody or watery and may have a foul odor. Abnormal bleeding can be another cervical cancer symptom. Abnormal bleeding may occur after menopause, between periods or after intercourse. Women with early-stage cervical cancer may also notice periods last longer or are heavier than usual.

Advanced-Stage Cervical Cancer Symptoms

Cervical cancer is considered invasive when the cancer has spread from the surface of the cervix and invaded tissues deep in the cervix, the vagina or other organs. A heavy, bloody discharge from the vagina or the vaginal discharge of urine or feces is a symptom of advanced-stage cervical cancer. Other symptoms can include a loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss, bone fractures, fatigue, a swollen leg and pain in the back or legs. Pelvic pain is uncommon, but can also be a cervical cancer symptom.

Diagnosis of Cervical Cancer

The diagnosis of cervical cancer often begins with a Pap test. During a Pap test, a doctor inserts a lubricated instrument into the vagina and removes some cells from the cervix. A Pap test will show doctors if abnormal cells are present in the cervix. A doctor will further examine abnormal cells by performing a colposcopy, which shines light on and magnifies the cervix with a special instrument. The doctor may also remove a biopsy of abnormal tissue for further testing. . If cancer is confirmed, imaging tests, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT) of the pelvis and abdomen and chest x-rays, are often used to determine the extent of the disease.

Treatment of Cervical Cancer

The three most common methods of treating cervical cancer are surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. A single therapy or combination may be used depending on the stage of the cervical cancer. Surgery is most often used when the cervical cancer is in early stages and still confined to the cervix. For cervical cancer that has spread beyond the cervix, radiation therapy, chemotherapy or a combination of both are often used. Radiation therapy can be delivered externally or internally using an implant. Chemotherapy is usually used in conjunction with radiation therapy, but can also be used as palliative therapy to relieve cervical cancer symptoms in advanced stage cancer.

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