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Vaginal discharge in advanced cervical cancer

My grandmother has advanced stage cervical cancer. She has a vaginal discharge, which has a strong smell and makes her feel very embarrassed and upset. Is there anything you can suggest to reduce this problem?

This page tells you about possible treatments and how to deal with this distressing symptom. There is information on


The causes

Understandably, this must be very upsetting for your grandmother. This type of symptom can make people feel very self conscious, anxious and depressed. Coping with it can be hard, but depending on what’s causing the problem, a number of things can help.

There are a few reasons why women with cervical cancer may have an unpleasant smelling vaginal discharge. An infection is a common cause. And some women are more prone to getting infections during treatment with radiotherapy or chemotherapy for cervical cancer.

Depending on the type of infection, antibiotics or antifungal medications can help clear it up. Although it can be embarrassing for her to do, it is important that your grandmother tells her doctor about her symptoms. If it is an infection they will be able to prescribe the right medications for her.

The unpleasant smelling discharge may also be a symptom of the cancer itself. If her cancer is very advanced then it may be difficult to get rid of this symptom completely.


Dealing with it

To help control the smell and discharge from her vagina she should

  • Keep the area around her vagina clean and dry.
  • Wear cotton underwear and loose clothes to keep the area cool
  • Change sanitary pads frequently
  • Use a deodorising spray around her bed or in the toilet before changing her pads - some of these do help. If she doesn’t like the deodorant smell, she could try essential oils or an air filter
  • Avoid using bubble bath and perfumed soaps around the vaginal area. These can destroy the normal vaginal discharge that helps protect against infections.
  • Use scented disposable bags for used sanitary pads
  • Wipe from front to back after going to the toilet

Something else you could suggest to your grandmother is to try using an aromatherapy oil burner in her home. Essential oils such as lavender, peppermint, eucalyptus and lemon or citrus based oils are good at masking unpleasant smells. They can be quite relaxing as well. You can buy these at most pharmacies or health shops. Your grandmother’s doctor or GP may suggest referring her to a team of symptom control specialists. These doctors and nurses are experts in relieving symptoms of cancer and other chronic diseases. You may hear them called Macmillan teams, palliative care teams or symptom control teams. Some teams are hospital based and some are community based. They may be based at your local hospice. The community based teams are able to come and see people in their own home.

The nurse or doctor who sees your grandmother will ask her about her symptoms - for example how bad they are and whether anything makes them better or worse. It can take a while to get good control of her symptoms, but generally they can improve things. They may be able to suggest different treatments to reduce the smell and discharge and make sure she is using the right types of pads. If your grandmother is having other symptoms such as pain, sickness and fatigue, they will be able to help with those as well. She may also find them a good source of emotional support. The team are experienced in treating people with advanced cancer and will understand how upsetting this symptom is for her.


More information

There is information about controlling the symptoms of advanced cervical cancer in the treating cervical cancer section.

Remember there are many common causes of discharge from the vagina that are not caused by cancer. These include infections in the vaginal area. If you have an abnormal discharge from your vagina, particularly one that has a smell, you should get checked by your GP.

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Updated: 10 June 2014