Uterine cancer symptoms can mimic many other conditions. Know the signs and symptoms and see a doctor early to ensure a quick diagnosis and treatment.
Uterine cancer starts in the uterus — the organ in which a fetus grows and develops during pregnancy. Doctors often refer to this type of cancer as endometrial cancer because 95 percent of all uterine cancers start in the uterus lining, called the endometrium. Far less common are uterine sarcomas, which grow from muscle or connective tissue.
What causes uterine cancer?
Researchers don't know what causes this cancer. They do know that cells lining the uterus multiply faster when they're stimulated by the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Abnormal cell growth is what causes cancerous tumors to form.
Many risk factors for uterine cancer involve excess hormones, including:
- Being obese
- Eating a high-fat diet
- Getting your period before age 12 or going into menopause after age 50
- Having type 2 diabetes or polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- Taking hormone therapy with estrogen only (taking progesterone with estrogen doesn't increase the risk)
- Using tamoxifen to treat breast cancer
Other factors that increase uterine cancer risk include:
- Age (the risk increases as you get older)
- Family history of hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (or HNPCC), also called Lynch syndrome
- Personal history of breast or ovarian cancer
- Radiation therapy to the pelvis
Taking birth control pills, using an intrauterine device (or IUD), and getting pregnant seem to lower your risk of uterine cancer.
Signs and symptoms of uterine cancer
Uterine cancer symptoms are similar to symptoms of other reproductive tract problems. See a gynecologist or primary care doctor if you notice:
- Bleeding or spotting from your vagina between periods or after menopause
- Pain during sex
- Pain in your pelvis
- Pain when you urinate
- Unexplained weight loss
Diagnosing uterine cancer
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history before doing an exam.
Tests used to diagnose uterine cancer include:
- Endometrial biopsy. The doctor removes a small piece of tissue from your uterus lining using a thin, flexible tube placed into your cervix.
- Hysteroscopy. A camera takes detailed pictures of your uterus through a scope placed in your vagina and cervix.
- Transvaginal ultrasound. A probe placed inside your vagina releases sound waves that create an image of your uterus and other pelvic organs on a video screen.
- Dilation and curettage (D&C). If the biopsy results aren't clear, this test removes tissue from inside your uterus during an outpatient procedure.
A lab will examine the tissue sample removed during those tests. The results will help your doctor determine your type and stage of cancer and choose the treatment that is best for you.
Treatments for uterine cancer
Surgery is the first treatment for most uterine cancers. A procedure called a total hysterectomy bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy removes your uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. Depending on where the cancer is located, surgery might also remove lymph nodes and the upper part of your vagina.
These treatments may be added for cancers that are likely to spread or that have already spread:
- Hormone therapy slows cancer by either giving or blocking hormones like progestin and estrogen.
- Radiation therapy kills cancer cells with powerful beams of energy.
- Chemotherapy kills cancer using strong medicine.
- Immunotherapy helps your immune system attack the cancer.
- Targeted therapy blocks substances the cancer needs to grow.
Can you prevent uterine cancer?
If you have a uterus, there's no way to guarantee you won't get uterine cancer. You can, however, lower your risk.
- Keep your weight in a healthy range. Overweight women are three times more likely to get uterine cancer than those who are at a healthy weight.
- Exercise. Being active can help keep your weight in check and may lower your risk for uterine cancer.
- Talk to your doctor about hormonal treatments. Taking birth control pills containing estrogen and progesterone might be protective, while hormone therapy for menopause could increase uterine cancer risk.
- Stay on top of your health. Manage chronic conditions that are linked to uterine cancer risk, such as type 2 diabetes.
October 30, 2023
Janet O'Dell, RN