cutout of female reproductive system

We all shake in our boots when we hear the word "cancer." While incredibly common, it’s not an illness any of us would wish upon our greatest enemy. With new treatments constantly in the works, many cancers that were previously a death sentence are now treatable, and cervical cancer is one of them. According to the American Cancer Society, cervical cancer used to be among the top causes of female cancer-related death in the United States. Ever since the Pap test was utilized, however, the death rate has dropped significantly.

In case you’re in need of a quick anatomy lesson, the cervix is located at the bottom of your uterus, connecting your uterus to the vagina’s opening (via Cleveland Clinic). It resembles the shape of a donut, and it serves as a passage for fluids that travel in and out of the uterus. The cervix can also contract and open, which means it plays a crucial role during pregnancy and childbirth, according to Cleveland Clinic.

Cervical cancer refers to precancerous cells that start to develop on the cervix’s surface. While these cells won’t always turn cancerous, early detection means that they can be removed before they start to cause any trouble. Common cervical cancer symptoms can often seem like nothing to worry about, so read on to discover some of the symptoms of cervical cancer you might be overlooking — and if any of them apply to you, see your doctor ASAP.

Heavy periods could indicate cervical cancer

pad and tampons against red background

Having an extremely heavy period can be easy to ignore, especially if it’s not usually very light to begin with. According to the NHS, heavy periods can be caused by depression, stress, and even some medications. Other conditions like pelvic inflammatory disease, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, and fibroids can also be the cause. It’s no wonder, then, that cancer is often not the first thing women think of when they deal with heavy vaginal bleeding.

According to Medanta, extremely heavy periods are considered an incredibly common symptom of cervical cancer. If you’re experiencing heavier periods than normal and feel extremely tired or dizzy while on your period, there’s a definite cause for concern. Any changes to your menstrual cycle should be investigated. If you notice spotting in between your menstrual cycles or if your period lasts way longer than normal, it could be a sign of cervical cancer.

Speaking to Women’s Health, gynecological oncologist Dr. Eloise Chapman-Davis explained that heavy bleeding typically means that the tumor has already made its way to the tissues surrounding the cervix, so make an appointment with your doctor ASAP if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.

Experiencing pain when having sex is another telltale sign

Two people in bed under covers

According to the Mayo Clinic, painful sex is pretty common, and plenty of women experience this at least once during their lifetime. Painful intercourse is referred to as dyspareunia, and refers to any vaginal pain you experience before, during, or post-intercourse. This includes experiencing pain during penetration or intense pain during thrusting. Experiencing an aching or burning sensation is also a cause for concern, as well as pain that doesn’t cease after having sex.

Now, obviously, many things can cause pain during sex, including a lack of lubrication, infections, or vaginal trauma sustained while giving birth, to name only a few. Speaking to Prevention, Dr. Lauren Streicher, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s medical school, explained that the cause is often nothing serious, and this is why many women overlook this common symptom.

If you experience pain during sex, you should absolutely get it checked out, because a tumor growing on the cervix can cause all these symptoms as well. In the case of cervical cancer, painful sex typically means that the cancer is in an advanced stage. Medanta reports that the cause of the pain is usually due to the tumor spreading to the reproductive organs. Don’t suffer in silence. If you experience painful sex, speak to your doctor ASAP.

Back or pelvic pain that won’t go away is a cause for concern

Woman experiencing low back pain

Most of us deal with some pain in our back and pelvic area at some point in our lives, and they most certainly aren’t usually linked to cancer, but according to Anthony C. Quartell, M.D. & Associates, a constant aching sensation in the area of the pelvis and low back is one of the most common symptoms of cervical cancer, and is also often overlooked.

Johns Hopkins Medicine reports that some of the most common causes of low back pain include herniated discs, arthritis, and injuries. Pelvic pain, on the other hand, is commonly caused by sexually transmitted infections, irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, or urinary tract infections (via the NHS). It makes sense, then, that women often attribute their symptoms to something other than cervical cancer.

According to the Times of India, pelvic pain manifests as a feeling of pressure, pain, or a dull aching sensation in the area under your navel. The pain might be consistent, or it could show up intermittently. As for back pain, double board-certified OB-GYN physician Dr. Kecia Gaither told Prevention that back pain that sticks around and seems to reach towards the area of your appendix could mean that the cancer has spread. If you experience any low back or pelvic pain that lasts for a week or longer and don’t find that any meds work, pay a visit to your doctor.

An increase in vaginal discharge is another common symptom

pads with white and yellow flowers

Women deal with vaginal discharge for most of their lives, so it makes sense that an increase in discharge doesn’t always automatically set off alarm bells. According to Medical News Today, an increase in discharge could be the result of something as normal as ovulation or arousal, but it can also be caused by some infections and hormonal imbalances. According to Healthline, increased discharge that has a funky smell is often caused by bacterial vaginosis. The thing is, these exact symptoms could also indicate that you have cervical cancer.

Speaking to Prevention, Dr. Kecia Gaither, a double board-certified physician in OB-GYN, warned that any discharge that has a watery consistency paired with a foul odor should be checked out. "This happens when the cancer begins to lack oxygen, causing an infection that leads to discharge and a strange smell," Dr. Jan Schaefer, Chief Medical Officer at MEDIGO, told Cosmopolitan. "While vaginal discharge can be a symptom of many other things, vaginal discharge that persists over a long period of time is definitely worth seeing a GP about," he adds.

Noticing vaginal bleeding after menopause can be a sign of cervical cancer

Female underwear pictured with a stethoscope

If you experience any postmenopausal bleeding, you should see your doctor right away. There are many common causes that can easily be remedied, like the thinning of the tissue surrounding the vulva and vagina as well as polyps (via the American College of Obstetricians Gynecologists). In some instances, it could be the result of the thickening of the uterus lining or fibroids, as Dr. Matthew Carlson explains in an article he wrote for the UT Southwestern Medical Center. Unfortunately, postmenopausal bleeding can also be a sign of cervical or even endometrial cancer.

If you experience any postmenopausal bleeding, see your doctor right away. They will typically perform a few tests, like an endometrial biopsy, dilation and curettage, or a transvaginal ultrasound. All these tests can help them find the root cause, and if there are signs of cervical cancer or any other cancer, they can refer you to a gynecologic oncologist, who can help you to get the treatment you need. Whatever you do, don’t ignore any bleeding after menopause.

Experiencing painful urination and bowel movements could be a warning sign

Woman sitting on toilet clutching stomach

Painful urination, also referred to as dysuria, is commonly caused by urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted infections, and even certain hygiene products people use in their genital area (via Healthline). But painful urination is also a common symptom of cervical cancer.

Speaking to the Hindustan Times, Dr. Sarika Gupta explained that experiencing a tight sensation while urinating along with any burning or stinging are warning signs you shouldn’t ignore. In the case of cervical cancer, these symptoms typically indicate that the cancer is no longer just affecting the cervix and has made its way to the surrounding tissue.

Having painful bowel movements is another common symptom of cervical cancer that is often attributed to constipation, hemorrhoids, anal fissures, and other conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (via WebMD). When cervical cancer spreads to the bladder, colon, and kidneys, it can result in painful bowel movements, according to Medanta. The tumors put pressure on these areas, and this causes blockages that prevent smooth bowel movements. If you experience any of these symptoms for a prolonged period of time, it’s imperative you speak to your doctor. While a myriad of things can cause them, it’s always good to rule out cancer first.

Fatigue and weight loss are also red flags

Woman looking incredibly tired

Most of us chalk it up to stress and being overworked, but fatigue is another common symptom that accompanies cervical cancer. While anxiety, depression, stressful events, grief, and even boredom can cause fatigue, you should definitely speak to your doctor if nothing helps you feel better (via Medical News Today). Speaking to Women’s Health, gynecologist Dr. Taraneh Shirazian explained that fatigue in cervical cancer patients is often caused by abnormal vaginal bleeding. Because you’re losing so much blood, your red blood cell and oxygen levels drop, resulting in fatigue you simply can’t beat.

Another common symptom is unexplained weight loss. This type of weight loss is rarely ever a good sign, and Shirazian warns that losing 5%-10% of your total body weight within six months without lifting a finger (as in, you’re not deliberately staying in a calorie deficit or training super hard for a marathon), you need to see your doctor ASAP. "A loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss can be symptoms of a number of cancers, including cervical cancer," Dr. Jan Schaefer, Chief Medical Officer at MEDIGO, told Cosmopolitan. "It is a particularly telling sign if weight loss persists, no matter how much food is consumed."

Constant nausea and indigestion can be caused by cervical cancer

Woman feeling nauseous leaning over the toilet

If you’re under a lot of stress, you might think that the constant nausea you experience is simply your anxiety messing with you (via Cleveland Clinic), but gynecologist Dr. Taraneh Shirazian warns that it’s also a common symptom of cervical cancer. Nausea typically shows up when cervical cancer is in a pretty advanced stage, as Shirazian told Women’s Health. As the cancer progresses, the cervix can start to swell, making its way into your abdominal cavity. This leads to compression of the stomach and gastrointestinal tract, which leads to constant nausea.

For the same reasons, you might experience indigestion as well (via The Guardian Life). These symptoms are easy to overlook since they are so common and often caused by eating certain foods, feeling anxious or stressed, pregnancy, obesity, smoking, and even some medications (via the NHS). If you constantly experience indigestion, pay a visit to your doctor.

Cervical cancer can cause swelling in the legs

Woman experiencing pain in her legs

Depending on your age, you might think that the aches and pains you experience in your legs are due to normal wear and tear or even the result of a previous injury. According to the Mayo Clinic, common causes include ineffective circulation and conditions like varicose veins. Blood clots can also be responsible, and sometimes the pain can even be caused by issues in the lower spine. Cervical cancer, however, can also be the culprit.

"When cervical cancer grows, it might start to press against the nerves in the lower back, which can lead to leg pain and some swelling," according to Dr. Jan Schaefer, Chief Medical Officer at MEDIGO (via Cosmopolitan). He also cautioned against pain and swelling occurring in conjunction, as they may also point to cervical cancer.

Anthony C. Quartell, M.D. & Associates explains that leg pain and swelling can also be caused by the cancer putting pressure on the nerves found in the pelvic wall. This usually occurs in the later stages of cervical cancer. If you experience leg pain and swelling, don’t ignore it. Make an appointment with your doctor to rule out cancer.

Cervical cancer can be treated successfully

Woman checking phone while receiving chemotherapy

One of the things that make cervical cancer so scary is that its symptoms can be so mundane, many of us don’t think twice about it until it’s too late. The good news: cervical cancer can be treated successfully if it’s caught early enough, so always pay attention to any unusual symptoms you experience.

According to Medical News Today, the basic treatment for cervical cancer in its early stages is surgery. In rare cases, doctors recommend patients undergo chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before they operate. Usually, your doctor will suggest radiation therapy post-surgery to prevent the cancer from recurring, or if they suspect that there might be some leftover cancer cells in your body. If the cancer is in an advanced stage, doctors typically don’t recommend surgery, and would instead advise you to opt for chemotherapy or radiation therapy. In some cases, they might recommend both of these treatments.

The American Cancer Society suggests thoroughly discussing your treatment options with your doctor. Don’t be afraid to ask questions: You deserve to know what to expect from the treatment, as well as the side effects that will accompany it. It’s always a good idea to get a second opinion as well — if there’s time. You can, of course, also choose not to receive any treatment, especially if the risks outweigh the benefits. If you choose to go this route, you can still get treatment for the painful symptoms you’re experiencing.

Things you can do to prevent cervical cancer

Two condoms tucked into jeans pocket

Prevention is always better than cure, especially when it comes to cancer. You can start by making some lifestyle changes, like quitting smoking. Smoking automatically increases your risk of developing cancer if you’re infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV). This virus is one of the main causes of cervical cancer, so you’d want to avoid aggravating it at all costs. Quitting any form of smoking is an easy way to make yourself less susceptible (via Medical News Today). Another great measure to take is to get the HPV vaccine; right after that, cervical screening is your next best bet. While it won’t identify cancer, a screening can tell doctors if there are any changes to the tissues of the cervix, which can help catch cancer early before it spreads.

Something else you can do to lower your chances of developing cervical cancer is paying attention to your sex life: HPV can be transmitted from one person to another during sex, so having several sexual partners significantly increases your risk of catching it. This goes without saying, but always make sure to use a condom when you’re having sex to protect yourself. Putting off having sex for the first time can also help lower your risk of getting cervical cancer. The younger you are when you first have sex, the higher the chances of contracting HPV. The older you are when you first have intercourse, the lower the chance of contracting the virus.