Uterine (Endometrial) Cancer

Uterine cancer at a glance

  • Uterine (or endometrial) cancer originates in the layers of cells in the uterus’ lining, called the endometrium, and involves the unregulated growth of cells to form cancerous tumors.
  • Heavy, abnormal bleeding may be an indicator of endometrial cancer, but a biopsy must be performed in order to confirm a diagnosis.
  • Causes of uterine cancer are unknown, but obesity, heredity and late menopause or early puberty are closely linked to the cancer.
  • Treatment may include a combination of radiation, chemotherapy or total hysterectomy.
  • Uterine cancer is the most common gynecologic cancer in the United States.

What is uterine cancer (endometrial cancer)?

Uterine cancer develops in the layers of cells that line the uterus. This lining is called the endometrium, which is why this condition is also known as endometrial cancer. Uterine cancer is the most common female genital cancer and the fourth most common cancer in women. Up to three million women are diagnosed with endometrial cancer each year.

There are two primary types cancers that form in the endometrium. The first, and most common, is endometrial adenocarcinomas that originates in the secreting tissue. The less common form, known as uterine sarcomas, begins in the connective tissue or muscles of the uterus.

Endometrial cancer is often detected at an early stage and has a high cure rate. The 5-year survival rate for women with endometrial cancer is 82 percent. When detected before spreading out of the uterus, overall endometrial cancer survival rate is around 96 percent.

What causes uterine cancer?

All cancers develop when an uncontrolled group of cells divides abnormally and mutates in the body. As with most cancers, doctors are unable to determine causes of endometrial cancer. There are some risk factors that likely contribute to endometrial cancer. They include:

  • Obesity – Excess body fat spikes estrogen levels in women and correlates to a higher cancer risk.
  • Never being pregnant – For unexplained reasons, women who have not given birth carry a two to three times higher risk of getting endometrial cancer.
  • Late menopause/early puberty – Women who begin menopause after 53 or young women who start menstruating before 12 experience increased risk of endometrial cancer. This is because both variables increase endometrium exposure to estrogen.
  • Heredity – Women with close relatives that have or had endometrial cancer have an increased risk of contracting endometrial cancer.

Uterine cancer symptoms and screening

Endometrial cancer symptoms are similar to those of the related condition endometriosis. Postmenopausal and abnormal bleeding are the most common endometrial cancer symptoms. In some cases, early stage endometrial cancer may not pose any noticeable symptoms. Patients with later stages may experience pelvic pain, unexpected weight loss and painful sex.

In order to confirm an endometrial cancer diagnosis, a doctor performs a transvaginal ultrasound to take pictures of the pelvic region. If the tissue looks suspicious, a doctor will perform a biopsy to sample the tissue and confirm whether cancer cells are present.

Another endometrial cancer screening method includes a hysteroscopy in which a doctor inserts a small tube into the uterus through the cervix and views the endometrium.

Uterine cancer treatment

The standard way to treat and cure endometrial cancer includes performing a total hysterectomy— removing the uterus, cervix, ovaries and Fallopian tubes.

Other treatment options may involve chemotherapy, radiation or hormone treatment. These treatments attack the cancerous cells and attempt to kill them non-surgically.

Treatment plans will vary from patient to patient and depend on the stage of the cancer and whether the patient wants to maintain fertility.