Uterine cancer at a glance
- All women are at risk for uterine cancer, but the risk increases with age.
- The list of risk factors is long, and includes abnormalities of the endometrium, obesity, never having children, first menstrual period before age 12, menopause after age 55, history of taking estrogen or tamoxifen, history of having radiation therapy to the pelvis, first degree relative with uterine cancer.
- Symptoms include unusual vaginal bleeding, spotting, or discharge, difficulty or pain when urinating, pain during sexual intercourse, or pain in the pelvic area.
- Surgery is the most common treatment, though other treatments are also successful: Hormone therapy, radiation, or chemotherapy.
Each year, approximately 35,000 women in the United States get uterine cancer. It is the most commonly diagnosed gynecologic cancer. In 2006, the latest year for which statistics are available, 7,384 women died of uterine cancer. Uterine cancer is the fourth most common cancer and the eighth most common cause of cancer death for women in the United States. Although uterine cancer rates are higher among white women than black women, black women are more likely to die from uterine cancer than white women.
All women are at risk for uterine cancer, but the risk increases with age. Most uterine cancers are found in women who are going through or who have gone through menopause—the time of life when your menstrual periods stop.
Cancer that forms in tissues of the uterus is called uterine cancer. Two types of uterine cancer are:
Endometrial cancer—cancer that begins in cells lining the uterus
Uterine sarcoma—is a rare cancer that begins in muscle or other tissues in the uterus.
Endometrial cancer is the most common gynecologic malignancy and accounts for 6% of all cancers in women. Endometrial cancer can almost always be treated successfully if caught early. Nearly 43,470 new cases and 7,950 deaths are estimated from endometrial cancer in the United States in 2010.
About the Uterus
The uterus is part of a woman’s reproductive system. It’s a hollow organ in the pelvis. The uterus has three parts:
- Top: The top or the fundus of your uterus is shaped like a dome. From the top of your uterus, the fallopian tubes extend to the ovaries.
- Middle: The middle part of your uterus is the body or corpus. This is where a baby grows.
- Bottom: The narrow, lower part of your uterus is the cervix. The cervix is a passageway to the vagina.
The wall of the uterus has two layers of tissue:
- Inner layer: The inner layer or lining of the uterus is the endometrium. In women of childbearing age, the lining grows and thickens each month to prepare for pregnancy. If a woman does not become pregnant, the thick, bloody lining flows out of the body. This flow is a menstrual period.
- Outer layer: The outer layer of muscle tissue is the myometrium.
About Uterine Cancer Cells
Uterine cancer begins when normal cells in the uterus begin to change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be benign or malignant.
Benign—Benign tumors or non-cancerous tumors are usually not a threat to life and they don’t invade or spread to other parts of the body. Noncancerous conditions of the uterus include fibroids (benign tumors in the muscle of the uterus), endometriosis (endometrial tissue on the outside of the uterus or other organs), and endometrial hyperplasia (an increased number of cells in the uterine lining).
Malignant—Malignant or cancerous tumors may be a threat to life, can grow again after removal. They may also invade or spread to other parts of the body.
A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer. Although risk factors can influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop cancer, while others with no known risk factors do. However, knowing your risk factors and communicating them to your health professional may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.
The following factors may raise a woman’s risk of developing uterine cancer:
- Abnormal overgrowth of the endometrium (endometrial hyperplasia): An abnormal increase in the number of cells in the lining of the uterus is a risk factor for uterine cancer. Hyperplasia is not cancer, but sometimes it develops into cancer. Common symptoms of this condition are heavy menstrual periods, bleeding between periods, and bleeding after menopause. Hyperplasia is most common after age 40.
- Obesity: Fatty tissue in women who are overweight produces additional estrogen, which can increase the risk of uterine cancer. This risk increases with an increase in body mass index.
- Reproductive and menstrual history: Women are at increased risk of uterine cancer if at least one of the following apply:
- Have never had children
- Had their first menstrual period before age 12
- Went through menopause after age 55
- History of taking estrogen alone: The risk of uterine cancer is higher among women who used estrogen alone (without progesterone) for menopausal hormone therapy for many years.
- History of taking tamoxifen: Women who took the drug tamoxifen to prevent or treat breast cancer are at increased risk of uterine cancer.
- History of having radiation therapy to the pelvis: Women who had radiation therapy to the pelvis are at increased risk of uterine cancer.
- Family health history: Women with a mother, sister, or daughter with uterine cancer are at increased risk of developing the disease. Also, women in families that have an inherited form of colorectal cancer (known as Lynch syndrome) are at increased risk of uterine cancer.