Symptoms and causes

Symptoms

Early-stage cervical cancer generally produces no signs or symptoms.

Signs and symptoms of more-advanced cervical cancer include:

  • Vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between periods or after menopause
  • Watery, bloody vaginal discharge that may be heavy and have a foul odor
  • Pelvic pain or pain during intercourse

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that concern you.

Causes

Cervical cancer begins when healthy cells acquire a genetic change (mutation) that causes them to turn into abnormal cells.

Healthy cells grow and multiply at a set rate, eventually dying at a set time. Cancer cells grow and multiply out of control, and they don't die. The accumulating abnormal cells form a mass (tumor). Cancer cells invade nearby tissues and can break off from a tumor to spread (metastasize) elsewhere in the body.

It isn't clear what causes cervical cancer, but it's certain that HPV plays a role. HPV is very common, and most women with the virus never develop cervical cancer. This means other factors — such as your environment or your lifestyle choices — also determine whether you'll develop cervical cancer.

Types of cervical cancer

The type of cervical cancer that you have helps determine your prognosis and treatment. The main types of cervical cancer are:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma. This type of cervical cancer begins in the thin, flat cells (squamous cells) lining the outer part of the cervix, which projects into the vagina. Most cervical cancers are squamous cell carcinomas.
  • Adenocarcinoma. This type of cervical cancer begins in the column-shaped glandular cells that line the cervical canal.

Sometimes, both types of cells are involved in cervical cancer. Very rarely, cancer occurs in other cells in the cervix.

Risk factors

Risk factors for cervical cancer include:

  • Many sexual partners. The greater your number of sexual partners — and the greater your partner's number of sexual partners — the greater your chance of acquiring HPV.
  • Early sexual activity. Having sex at an early age increases your risk of HPV.
  • Other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Having other STIs — such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV/AIDS — increases your risk of HPV.
  • A weak immune system. You may be more likely to develop cervical cancer if your immune system is weakened by another health condition and you have HPV.
  • Smoking. Smoking is associated with squamous cell cervical cancer.