6 Signs of Cervical Cancer That Can Be Too Easy to Miss

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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As Diana Pearre, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at the Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California, tells SELF, it’s really difficult to tell cervical cancer-related bleeding and pain from sex apart from other things, like vaginal dryness or even uterine fibroids. But importantly, “bleeding after intercourse should not be happening all the time,” she explains. “There are a lot of benign reasons it could be happening, but it’s something to report to your doctor—especially if it’s something you’re experiencing all of a sudden.”

2. A wonky menstrual cycle

If you get a period, it can look and feel different from month to month—sometimes it’s short and light, or drawn-out and heavy. But as Dr. Avila notes, when your flow is off, your body might be prodding you to listen up. According to Dr. Pearre, it’s typically one of the most tell-tale signs of the disease.

If you’re bleeding after menopause, between periods, or a lot—soaking through your pad or tampon every one to two hours or your period is lasting longer than seven days—it can sometimes signal cervical cancer. Dr. Avila says it’s important to look out for any strange bleeding patterns, particularly if you’re skipping periods and then running through pads all of a sudden. She says people who had heavy bleeding and were eventually diagnosed with cervical cancer came to her office and just assumed a change in their diet or taking a new supplement was to blame. “I hear it all the time,” she stresses. “If there’s any abnormal bleeding, it’s important to come in [for an exam].”

3. Unpleasant vaginal discharge

As SELF has previously reported, your vagina cleans itself by releasing discharge—a.k.a. that mucusy fluid that piles on your underwear throughout the day. Yours might have a slight odor that’s more fragrant during certain parts of your menstrual cycle or even after a workout. But if the smell is particularly bothersome to you, cervical cancer could potentially be one reason to have on your radar—particularly if it’s happening alongside a wonky period, per Dr. Avila.

According to Dr. Pearre, when a person with late-stage cervical cancer has discharge, you won’t *not* be able to notice the odor. “It’s very foul-smelling,” she notes. Though Dr. Pearre says that some STIs, like trichomoniasis and gonorrhea, can present with similar smells, cervical cancer discharge odor is usually worse, Dr. Avila says. “That tumor is trying to get bigger and bigger and there’s a lot of dead tissue that’s there, and that’s what we smell with those kinds of cancers,” she notes. Though its smell is often the most defining characteristic, the discharge might be watery, pink, pale, yellowish, brown, or mixed with blood, per Dr. Pearre.

4. Bowel and bladder issues

Similar to how having sex might affect the cervix (and cause pain and bleeding), cancerous cells or tumors can push up against other surrounding stuff, too—and that includes your bladder and bowel. “I see a lot of patients [with cervical cancer] who either need to pee very frequently or have issues starting the stream,” Dr. Avila says. Alternatively, she says people who ultimately get diagnosed with cervical cancer complain about constipation, or that they have to really strain to go. “I’ll have patients say, ‘Oh, I thought I was just constipated and straining too much, or I thought I had a meal that went bad.’” (There could also be blood in your poop or urine, per the National Cancer Institute.)

5. Pain and swelling in various parts of your body

As cervical cancer progresses, you might develop pain in your pelvis, back, belly, or legs. For McClellan, her lower back aches felt similar to period-related cramps.

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