Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of cancer death among American women. Today, thanks to advances in screening, many patients are spared a diagnosis of advanced disease, instead identifying a problem at the precancerous stage. That said, it is still essential to know the signs of this type of gynecological cancer, which is newly diagnosed in approximately 14,000 women each year and leads to more than 4,000 deaths per year. “Early detection greatly improves the chances of successful treatment and can prevent early changes in cervical cells from becoming cancer,” says the American Cancer Society (ACS). “Being alert for all signs and symptoms of cervical cancer can also help avoid unnecessary delays in diagnosis,” they add. Read on to find out which cancer symptom you may notice in the bathroom and what to do if it happens to you.
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Breakthrough bleeding between periods, or metrorrhagia, is common and therefore easy to dismiss. Although it most often does not signal a serious underlying condition, it can be one of the first signs of cervical cancer.
Although everyone’s body is different, an average menstrual cycle lasts between 25 and 30 days, and most women will have their period between two and seven days during this cycle. Breakthrough bleeding occurs outside of this time of your cycle, either as lighter spotting or heavier bleeding.
If the cause of your irregular bleeding is cancerous, you may notice other symptoms, including bleeding after sex or abnormal vaginal discharge. According to the UK’s National Health Services (NHS), some women with cervical cancer will also develop heavier periods and may experience pain in the lower back, pelvis or lower arm. ‘abdomen.
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Most women in their thirties aren’t too concerned about developing cancer at their age, but cervical cancer is known to disproportionately affect this unlikely demographic. It most often develops in women between the ages of 35 and 45.
However, it is important to follow up with your gynecologist regarding any abnormal symptoms you may be experiencing, regardless of your age or life stage. “Many older women do not realize that the risk of developing cervical cancer is always present as they age. More than 20% of cases of cervical cancer are found in women over 65 years,” notes the American Cancer Society.
The vast majority of breakthrough bleeding can be explained by benign conditions. Most often, it is caused by the use of hormonal contraceptives, including birth control pills, rings, implants, patches, intrauterine devices (IUDs), or emergency contraceptives. Certain sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as chlamydia can also cause bleeding between periods, as can polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, and benign cervical or vaginal polyps.
Spotting is also considered a normal feature of perimenopause – the transitional phase before menopause during which periods can become irregular. It can also be part of an early pregnancy or miscarriage. Talk to your doctor if the cause of your breakthrough bleeding isn’t immediately obvious.
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Beginning at age 21, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends annual screening for cervical cancer. “When cervical cancer is detected early, it is highly treatable and associated with long survival and good quality of life,” they write. In fact, women with localized cancer (that is, one that has not yet spread at the time of diagnosis) have a five-year survival rate of 92%, compared to women who do not have it, says the ACS.
The organization also notes that there are now two main testing options currently available: the Pap test and the human papillomavirus (HPV) test. According to the CDC, the latter is effective because long-lasting HPV infection is the leading cause of cervical cancer. However, having HPV does not necessarily mean you will develop cervical cancer. “At least half of sexually active people will get HPV at some point in their lives, but few women will get cervical cancer,” the CDC notes.
Finally, the CDC points out that gynecological testing can make all the difference in your safety against cancer. “Cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer death among women in the United States,” the organization explains. However, over the past 40 years, the number of cases and deaths has declined significantly. “This decline is largely the result of many women having regular Pap tests, which can detect pre-cancer of the cervix before it turns into cancer,” their experts add.
Talk to your doctor if you have suspicious bleeding between periods or if you think it’s been more than a year since your last screening.
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