What women should know about uterine cancer

July 09, 2019 | by George I. Salti, M.D.

Irregular bleeding, or bleeding between periods, is often an early warning sign of uterine cancer.

Uterine cancer (also known as endometrial cancer) begins in the cells of the inner lining of the uterus and often affects women over age 40.

The uterus is a hollow, pear-shaped organ where fetal development occurs. It is divided into two parts. The upper part of the uterus is called the body, and is where uterine cancer develops. A different type of cancer, cervical cancer, develops in the lower part of the uterus called the cervix.

Uterine cancer is often detected early because of abnormal bleeding, including bleeding between periods or bleeding after menopause. Pelvic pain is also an early warning sign.

Though there is no known cause for uterine cancer, some factors can increase a woman’s risk, such as:

  • Obesity. Having more fat tissue can increase a woman’s estrogen levels, which can increase a woman’s risk for uterine cancer. Uterine cancer is up to three times more likely in women who are obese.
  • Age. Uterine cancer often occurs after menopause.
  • More years of menstruation. Starting menstruation at an early age (younger than 12) or starting menopause at a later age increases a woman’s chances of developing uterine cancer. The more periods you’ve had, the more estrogen you’ve produced. Higher levels of estrogen put you at a higher risk.
  • If you’ve never been pregnant, you are at a higher risk than someone who has had at least one pregnancy.
  • A family history of colon cancer or a previous personal history of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, polycystic ovarian syndrome or hyperplasia (a precursor lesion) increases risk.

Some factors that may decrease your uterine cancer risk include:

  • Maintaining a healthy body weight.
  • Using birth control pills. Taking birth control pills for at least one year may decrease your risk. However, there are other side effects with birth control pills, so discuss this option with your doctor.

Your doctor may rely on one or more tests, such as a pelvic exam, ultrasound, hysteroscopy or biopsy to help in detecting the thickness of the inner lining, aid in diagnosis and, if diagnosed, determine the stage of cancer.

The most common form of treatment for uterine cancer often involves surgery where the uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries and surrounding tissue are removed (hysterectomy and bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy with pelvic and para-aortic lymphadenectomy).

Other treatment options may involve radiation, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and targeted drug therapy.

With uterine cancer, early detection is key. Anyone who has abnormal bleeding or spotting should go to the doctor.

At Edward-Elmhurst Health, our cancer experts will partner with you every step of the way. Learn more about our cancer care.

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