Symptoms usually do not appear until abnormal cervical cells become cancerous and invade the tissue below the epithelial surface. When this happens, the most common symptom is abnormal bleeding.
Bleeding may start and stop between regular menstrual periods, or it may occur after sexual intercourse, douching, or during a gynaecological examination. Menstrual bleeding may last longer and be heavier than usual. Bleeding after menopause also may be an indicator of cervical cancer. This symptom may also point to cancer from the endometrium (inner lining of the womb). Increased vaginal discharge can be another symptom of cervical cancer. The discharge typically will have a strong, unpleasant odour.
These symptoms may point to cancer or to other health problems. Only a doctor can tell for sure. It is important for a woman to see her doctor if she is having any of these symptoms.
When to see a doctor
For the early detection of cancer precursors, women should see their doctor to have a Pap smear at regular intervals.
The doctor should be consulted if any of the following symptoms develop:
• Bleeding which starts and stops between regular menstrual periods
• Bleeding after sexual intercourse or douching
• Bleeding after menopause
• Increased vaginal discharge
(Reviewed by Professor Lynette Denny, Gynaecology Oncology Unit, Department Obstetrics & Gynaecology, University of Cape Town/Groote Schuur Hospital)