If You Notice This in the Bathroom, Get Checked for Cancer

This common symptom is often the first sign of cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of cancer death among American women. Today, thanks to advancements in screening, many patients are spared a diagnosis of advanced disease, instead identifying a problem in the pre-cancer stage. That said, it's still essential to know the signs of this type of gynecologic cancer, which is newly diagnosed in roughly 14,000 women each year and results in over 4,000 deaths annually. "Early detection greatly improves the chances of successful treatment and can prevent any early cervical cell changes from becoming cancer," says the American Cancer Society (ACS). "Being alert to any 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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If you experience bleeding between periods, get checked for cervical cancer.

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Breakthrough bleeding between periods, or metrorrhagia, is common and therefore easy to dismiss. Though it most often doesn't signal a serious underlying condition, it can be among the first signs of cervical cancer.

Though everyone's body is different, an average menstrual cycle lasts between 25 and 30 days, and most women will menstruate for between two and seven days within that cycle. Breakthrough bleeding occurs outside of that time in your cycle, either in the form of lighter spotting or heavier bleeding.

If the cause for your irregular bleeding is cancerous, you may notice other symptoms, including bleeding after sex or abnormal vaginal discharge. According to the U.K.'s National Health Services (NHS), some women with cervical cancer will also develop heavier periods, and may feel pain in the lower back, pelvis, or lower abdomen.

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Cervical cancer tends to affect women within this age range.

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Most women in their 30s aren't overly concerned with 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's important to follow up with your gynecologist regarding any abnormal symptoms you may experience, regardless of your age or life stage. "Many older women do not realize that the risk of developing cervical cancer is still present as they age. More than 20 percent of cases of cervical cancer are found in women over 65," notes the American Cancer Society.

Most often, the cause of breakthrough bleeding is non-cancerous.

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The vast majority of breakthrough bleeding between periods can be explained by benign conditions. Most frequently, it's 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 ovarian syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, and benign cervical or vaginal polyps.

Spotting is also considered a normal feature of perimenopause—the transitional phase preceding menopause in which the period can become irregular. It can also be part of early pregnancy or miscarriage. Speak with your doctor if the cause for your breakthrough bleeding is not immediately evident.

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This is the best way to protect yourself against cervical cancer.

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Starting at age of 21, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends receiving an annual screening for cervical cancer. "When cervical cancer is found early, it is highly treatable and associated with long survival and good quality of life," they write. In fact, women with only localized cancer (meaning it has not yet spread at the time of diagnosis) have a five year survival rate of 92 percent, compared with women who do not have the condition, says 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 have HPV at some point in their lives, but few women will get cervical cancer," notes the CDC.

Finally, the CDC stresses that gynecologic testing can make all the difference in your cancer safety. "Cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States," says the organization. However, over the past 40 years, the number of cases and deaths have decreased significantly. "This decline largely is the result of many women getting regular Pap tests, which can find cervical pre-cancer before it turns into cancer," their experts add.

Speak with your doctor if you experience suspicious bleeding between periods, or if you believe you have gone more than one year since your last screening.

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Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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