Cancer of the Uterus

Information About Uterine Cancer

Cancer of the uterus may refer to several different types of cancer that occur in the uterus, most commonly endometrial cancer and cervical cancer. With any form of uterine cancer, abnormal cells can multiply and accumulate, causing growths known as tumors. Benign growths, which can include uterine fibroids or endometriosis, are generally less harmful than malignant (cancerous) growths, which can spread and become life-threatening if not treated. In many cases, uterine cancer affects postmenopausal women.

Endometrial Cancer

Endometrial cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the uterus, particularly when cancerous cells form in the endometrium or the lining of the uterus. As it is the most common type of cancer affecting the uterus, as well as the most common cancer affecting the female reproductive system, it is often referred to as uterine cancer. Endometrial cancer most often occurs in postmenopausal women over the age of 50. With detection in early stages, however, the disease can be effectively treated before it spreads beyond the uterus.

Specific causes of endometrial cancer have yet to be found. What is known, however, is that a genetic mutation turns healthy cells into abnormal cells, which then accumulate and form tumors that can spread, or metastasize, throughout the body. While definitive causes remain elusive, studies have suggested that excess estrogen in comparison to progesterone may cause a thickening of the uterine lining, thereby facilitating the growth of cancerous cells.

Endometrial cancer is most commonly characterized by abnormal vaginal bleeding, particularly when vaginal bleeding occurs after menopause. Pain or difficulty urinating, pain during intercourse and general pelvic pain are other common symptoms. Although these symptoms can potentially be caused by other conditions and medical concerns, being aware of the symptoms can prompt medical examination and early detection.

Risk Factors 
Risk factors such as obesity, a history of taking estrogen alone, a history of taking tamoxifen, radiation therapy, and a familial history of cancer may also increase the risk of developing endometrial cancer. Women who have never had children had their first period before the age of 12, and went through menopause after the age of 55 are also believed to have higher risks for developing the disease.

Diagnosis & Staging 
As endometrial cancer is highly treatable and curable in early stages, regular screening, symptom awareness, and early detection are essential. Medical professionals may use a number of various tests and diagnostic approaches to screen for endometrial cancer and to determine the extent to which it has spread. Pelvic examinations, blood tests, biopsies, hysteroscopy (insertion of a camera into the uterine cavity), and ultrasounds are commonly used to make a diagnosis.

The extent, or staging, of endometrial cancer, is vital to helping doctors determine a prognosis and effective treatment program. Endometrial cancer is staged as follows:

  • Stage 0 - cancerous cells are only detected in the surface layer of cells of the inner lining of the uterus
  • Stage I - cancerous tumors have grown through the inner lining to the endometrium but remain in the body of the uterus
  • Stage II - cancer has spread from the uterus into the connective tissues of the cervix
  • Stage III - cancer has spread outside of the uterus or into nearby tissues of the pelvic area
  • Stage IV - cancer has spread to organs such as the bladder or the rectum (lower part of the intestine) to lymph nodes and/or other structures such as the liver, lungs, or bones

Treatment options will depend on the nature of cancer and the stage. You should also consider personal factors when exploring your options, including your age and overall health, whether you plan to have children, and other personal circumstances. Various surgical options, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormone therapy, and drug treatment are the usually available options. A hysterectomy, or the removal of the uterus, is an option that your doctor can help you consider.

Cervical Cancer

Although less prevalent than endometrial cancer, cervical cancer is another relatively common form of uterine cancer. Cervical cancer involves the formation of cancerous cells in the tissues of the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Most women with cervical cancer are under the age of 55. Early detection, diagnostic tools, and increased awareness have improved prognoses in women with cervical cancer.

Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV can be sexually transmitted and, depending on the specific type of HPV virus, may also cause genital warts. HPV may also remain in the body undetected for long periods of time, causing cancer years after infection. Regular Pap tests are vital to detecting HPV before it can become cancerous.

Early stage cervical cancers often cause no apparent symptoms. As cancer progresses, the following symptoms may begin to manifest:

  • Bleeding between periods or after menopause
  • Bleeding after intercourse, douching, or pelvic examinations
  • Heavy or prolonged periods
  • Pelvic pain or pain during intercourse

Other medical conditions or infections can cause these symptoms as well. Anyone who has experienced these signs should seek medical attention.

Diagnosis & Staging 
Regular screening is crucial to early detection and successful treatment. Pap tests can reveal abnormal cell changes that should prompt a doctor to perform other tests to look for precancerous or cancerous cells in the cervix. These tests can include HPV tests, cervical exams, and biopsies (tissue samples). If these tests indicate cancerous growth, doctors can determine the extent of the disease (staging) in order to arrive at a prognosis and set of available treatment options. Staging for cervical cancer are:

  • Stage I - cancerous cells are located only in the cervix
  • Stage II - cancerous cells/growth has spread to the upper part of the vagina or other nearby tissues
  • Stage II - cancerous growth has spread to the pelvic wall or lower part of the vagina, which can potentially affect kidney function
  • Stage IV - cancerous growth has spread to other organs or structures within the body, including the bladder, rectum, or lungs

Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, drug treatment, or a combination of these methods are the most common treatment methods for cervical cancer. Your choice should always be derived from an extensive exploration into the options available to you, your specific situation, the stage of cancer, and other personal factors. A doctor can help you fully explore these options with a specific focus on your unique circumstances. Seeking a second opinion is also strongly encouraged.

If you have been diagnosed with any type of uterine cancer, including endometrial cancer and cervical cancer, and your doctor has suggested a hysterectomy surgery as a possible treatment option, then you should take measures to further explore information about this procedure and whether alternative options are available. Complete a contact form to obtain more information about uterine cancer and hysterectomies.