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Cervical cancer symptoms:
Signs to look out for
Every year in Australia there are around 900 cases of cervical cancer and over 200 women die because of the disease. However, its silent nature makes it one of the hardest cancers to detect.
Cervical cancer is referred to as the ‘silent killer’ because symptoms often don’t appear until it’s in the advanced stages. Cervical cancer develops slowly, meaning it can take years before it is evident.
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that affects the cells of a woman’s cervix. Almost all cases are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) which is passed on through sexual intercourse.
HPV is extremely common, affecting around 8 in ten women at least once in their lifetime.
In most cases, people’s immune system will protect them from the virus, although, in these circumstances, it can still take one to two years for the body to clear HPV.
Sometimes, however, that’s not the case. The virus can linger and cause changes to the cells in the cervix. Over time this can lead to cancer.
While HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer, other factors that can increase your risk of developing it include:
- Being immunocompromised
- Exposure to the chemical diethylstilbestrol (DES) in utero
Symptoms of cervical cancer
While early-stage cervical cancer can be hard to detect, there are some common symptoms to be aware of. These include:
- Vaginal bleeding between periods
- Bleeding after intercourse
- Post menopause bleeding
- Longer and heaver periods
- Abnormal vaginal discharge – may have a strong or unusual colour or smell
- Pelvic pain
- Genital pain before, during or after sex
Symptoms of more advanced cancer are uncommon, but include:
- Lower back pain
- Extreme fatigue
- Pain or swelling in legs
It’s common to experience some of these symptoms throughout your life and, in most cases, they are caused by other conditions. However, if you are worried or your symptoms persist, contact your doctor for advice.
What are the steps to prevent cervical cancer?
Condom use may reduce the risk of contracting HPV, although the risk will not be eliminated.
Some studies show condom use has been associated with slightly higher rates of clearance of HPV infection in women as well as higher rates of regression of cell damage caused by HPV.
The HPV vaccine, Gardasil 9, provides effective protection against nine types of cancer-causing HPV. These nine types of HPV cause around 90 per cent of cervical cancers.
The HPV vaccine is free for everyone aged 12-25. Most Australian students, aged 12-13, will receive their immunisation in school.
It is recommended that all women aged 25-74 have a Cervical Screening Test every five years. If your screening test detects any abnormalities, this timeframe will be reduced or further tests may be required.
Cervical Screening is used to look for any signs of the HPV virus, or evidence of cervical cell damage caused by HPV.
Cervical screening tests can be done at your doctors or a range of health clinics.
As an alternative, woman can collect their own vaginal sample.
Self-testing was introduced in 2022 for all women. The self-test is different from a cervical screening test because it only checks for HPV.
If your self-test detects HPV, you must see your doctor and undergo a cervical screening test performed by a health practitioner.
Self-tests can only be accessed from a health care provider and are generally performed in a health care facility. Women who have had previous HPV or cervical cell changes would generally be more suited to a cervical screening test rather than a self-test.
If you have any concerns about any symptoms you are experiencing or if you would like to book in for cervical screening, contact us today. Our Evoca GPs are here to look after you and your health.
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