Uterine Cancer

Uterine (YOO-te-rin) cancer occurs in the tissue of the uterus, part of the reproductive tract of women.




Anatomy of the female reproductive system showing cervical and uterine cancers.





Anatomy of the female reproductive system showing cervical and uterine cancers.
Illustration by Frank Forney. © 2016 Cengage Learning®.

What Is the Uterus?

The uterus is the hollow, pear-shaped organ in which a fetus * develops when a woman is pregnant.

What Is Uterine Cancer?

Uterine cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer among women. It occurs when cells in a woman's uterus undergo abnormal changes and start dividing without control or order, forming tumors * .

Uterine cancer * usually begins in the cells of the endometrium (en-do-MEE-tree-um), the thin layer of tissue that lines the inside of the main part of the uterus. That is why it is sometimes called endometrial (en-do-MEE-tree-al) cancer.

Uterine cancer is more common in women who have gone through menopause * (usually age 50 and older), but it can occur earlier. It usually develops gradually, with some of the cells first undergoing precancerous changes. These cells are not yet cancerous, but they have undergone some abnormal changes that indicate that they could turn into cancer.

What Causes Uterine Cancer?

Although the cause of uterine cancer is not fully understood, cancer of the uterus occurs more frequently in those women who have an imbalance of reproductive hormones * , particularly estrogen (ES-tro-jen). As of 2015 researchers were exploring the connection between estrogen and uterine cancer. There are several known risk factors associated with uterine cancer. These include:

Facts and Statistics About Uterine Cancer

The American Cancer Society published important facts and statistics about uterine cancer in 2014:

How Is Uterine Cancer Diagnosed and Treated?

Diagnosis

Uterine cancer is usually curable if it is found early, but unfortunately, there are no reliable routine tests for this disease (although a Pap smear sometimes can detect early forms). A Pap smear is a common diagnostic test used to look for cancerous cells in the tissue of the cervix. Typically, uterine cancer is found only after a woman experiences symptoms, such as unusual bleeding or other discharge from the vagina, pain or pressure, or weight loss.

If it is not caught early, uterine cancer can grow through the wall of the uterus and metastasize (spread) to nearby organs. The cancer cells can also enter nearby lymph nodes * and be carried to other parts of the body. Uterine cancer affects about 55,000 women in the United States each year.

If doctors suspect uterine cancer based on a woman's symptoms and a physical examination, a biopsy (BI-op-see) is necessary to confirm the diagnosis. A uterine biopsy involves removing a small sample of tissue from the uterus and sending it out to a laboratory to be tested for signs of the disease.

Treatment

The most common treatments are surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy * . Surgery involves hysterectomy (the removal of the uterus and nearby reproductive organs such as the fallopian tubes * and ovaries * ) and the removal of the lymph nodes near the tumor.

After the treatment is finished, most women can lead normal lives. If their uterus is removed, however, they can no longer bear children. This often is not an issue for women in their 50s and 60s, but younger women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s may find it hard to adjust to this loss.

How Can Uterine Cancer Be Prevented?

Because the causes of uterine cancer are not fully understood, prevention is not understood either. Smoking should be avoided, and it is essential that women see their doctors yearly. Women who have irregular menstrual * periods, which may indicate that they have a hormonal imbalance, should be evaluated by a doctor. Hormone treatment may reduce the risk of uterine cancer. Maintaining a healthy diet (high in fruits and vegetables and low in animal fat) and proper body weight seem to play some role in lowering the risk of developing this cancer.

See also Cancer: Overview • Cervical Cancer • Diabetes • Genital Warts • Hypertension • Menstruation and Menstrual Disorders • Obesity

Resources

Books and Articles

Chiang, Jing Wang. “Uterine Cancer.” Medscape, June 17, 2013. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/258148-overview (accessed November 9, 2015).

Kamp, Jon. “Government Watchdog to Investigate Hysterectomy Device Found to Spread Uterine Cancer.” The Wall Street Journal, September 4, 2015. http://www.wsj.com/articles/governmentwatchdog-to-investigate-hysterectomy-device-found-to-spreaduterine-cancer-1441385550 (accessed November, 2015).

Websites

MedlinePlus. “Uterine Cancer.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/uterinecancer.html (accessed November 9, 2015).

Organizations

American Cancer Society. 250 Williams St. NW, Atlanta, GA 30303. Toll-free: 800-227-2345. Website: http://www.cancer.org (accessed November 9, 2015).

Foundation for Women's Cancer. 230 W. Monroe, Suite 2528, Chicago, IL 60606. Telephone: 312-578-1439. Website: http://www.foundationforwomenscancer.or g (accessed November 9, 2015).

National Cancer Institute. 9609 Medical Center Dr., Bldg. 9609, MSC 9760, Bethesda, MD 20892-9760. Toll-free: 800-4-CANCER. Website: http://www.cancer.gov (accessed November 9, 2015)

Office on Women's Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 200 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC 20201. Toll-free: 800-994-9662. Website: http://www.womenshealth.gov (accessed November 9, 2015).

* fetus (FEE-tus) is the term for an unborn human after it is an embryo, from nine weeks after fertilization until childbirth.

* tumors (TOO-morz) are abnormal growths of body tissue that have no known cause or physiologic purpose. Tumors may or may not be cancerous.

* cancer is a condition characterized by abnormal overgrowth of certain cells, which may be fatal.

* menopause (MEN-o-pawz) is the end of menstruation.

* hormones are chemical substances that are produced by various glands and sent into the bloodstream carrying messages that have certain effects on other parts of the body.

* lymph nodes (LIMF) are small, bean-shaped masses of tissue containing immunesystem cells that fight harmful microorganisms.

* chemotherapy (KEE-mo-THER-apee) is the treatment of cancer with powerful drugs that kill cancer cells.

* fallopian tubes (fa-LO-pee-an) are the two slender tubes that connect the ovaries and the uterus in females. They carry the ova, or eggs, from the ovaries to the uterus.

* ovaries (O-vuh-reez) are the sexual glands from which ova, or eggs, are released in women.

* menstrual (MEN-stroo-al) refers to menstruation (men-stroo-AYshun), the discharging through the vagina of blood and tissue from the uterus that recurs each month in women of reproductive age.

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.