How to spot the early signs of cervical cancer. (Shutterstock)

It is often labelled as the silent killer but as the ­tragic death of nurse Julie O’Connor showed, cervical cancer DOES have tell-tale signs. Mum-of-two Julie, 49, ­complained of symptoms but died after docs failed to ­diagnose her for three years. More than 3,000 women ­discover they have cervical ­cancer every year and it is the most ­common ­cancer in women under 35.

It claimed the life of reality star Jade Goody when she was 27, leading to a spike in tests. But ten years on, a new ­generation of women have been ­neglecting their health. If caught early, the outlook is good — and despite the failures with Julie’s case, smear tests are crucial. Yet those ­attending ­routine ­screening appointments has hit a 20-year low.

Public Health England estimates that eight in ten of the deaths could be prevented if all ­eligible women were screened and abnormal cells spotted early. Being vaccinated against HPV — an extremely common virus passed on during any kind of sexual contact — at school also reduces your risk, as almost all cases are linked to it. But it is also vital to be alert to early warning signs, such as abnormal bleeding and lower back pain.

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The disease affects the cervix– the gateway to your womb from the vagina — and some women do not experience symptoms in the early stages. But there are a ­number of easy-to-spot abnormalities that could mean the difference between quick, ­life-saving treatment and needing a ­hysterectomy, chemotherapy or something worse.

Kate Sanger, of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said: “These signs can be associated with lots of other things that are not ­cancer, and the chances are they are nothing to worry about. The key thing is to be aware of what they are and get them checked, not brush them off. Changes to cervical health are much harder for you to see than in another body part, like your eyes. Gynaecological problems can feel embarrassing but ­doctors and nurses have seen it all before and early detection and ­treatment of cervical cancer has really positive outcomes.”

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Five signs you should act on, even if you recently had a normal smear test:

  1. Abnormal bleeding. This means between periods or during or after sex.
  2. Vaginal discharge that is unusual in terms of smell,
    colour or amount.
  3. Increased menstrual bleeding or post-menopausal bleeding.
  4. Lower back pain.
  5. Pain during intercourse.

As cervical cancer develops, it can cause further symptoms. These may include:

  • Going for a wee more often.
  • Blood in your urine.
  • Bleeding from the bottom.
  • Diarrhoea.
  • Incontinence.
  • Lower limb swelling.