What Is Uterine Cancer?

Uterine cancer is the fourth most common cancer among women and the most common cancer of a woman's reproductive system.

There are two major types of uterine cancer:

Endometrial cancer (adenocarcinoma). Cancer that develops in the lining of the uterus, known as the endometrium; more than 95 percent of uterine cancers are endometrial cancer.

Sarcoma cancer. Cancer that develops in the uterine muscle (the myometrium) or in the supporting tissues of the uterine glands; sarcoma accounts for only about 2 to 4 percent of all uterine cancers.

What Causes Uterine Cancer?

Uterine cancer occurs when cells in the uterus change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass called a tumor.

The exact cause of uterine cancer is not yet known; however, the following factors may increase a woman's risk of developing the disease:

  • Age. Uterine cancer most often occurs in postmenopausal women over age 50
  • Obesity
  • Race. White women are more likely to develop uterine cancer than black women
  • Genetics. Uterine cancer may run in families where colon cancer is hereditary
  • Other cancers or health conditions, including colon or ovarian cancer, endometrial hyperplasia, and insulin resistance or diabetes
  • Tamoxifen
  • Radiation therapy
  • Estrogen therapy

What Are the Symptoms of Uterine Cancer?

In some cases, women with uterine cancer do not have symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they may include:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding, spotting, or discharge
  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • Pain or pressure in the pelvic area
  • Longer, heavier periods than normal
  • Pain or difficulty when urinating
  • Bleeding or spotting between menstrual cycles
  • Postmenopausal bleeding

How Is Uterine Cancer Diagnosed?

Diagnosis may include:

  • A thorough medical history and physical exam
  • A pelvic exam and Pap test
  • Imaging tests such as a transvaginal ultrasound, X-ray, or computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan to not only diagnose uterine cancer but determine if it has spread, or metastasized
  • Endometrial biopsy or D&C (dilation and curettage) - a procedure to remove tissue samples from the lining of the uterus for examination under a microscope

How Is Uterine Cancer Treated?

Treatment depends on the individual patient and their cancer but typically involves a combination of therapies, including:

Surgery. To remove the cancerous tissue, typically a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) as well as removal of the ovaries and lymph nodes near the tumor to determine if the cancer has spread.

Radiation. Uses high-energy x-rays to kill microscopic cancer cells that may remain after surgery.

Chemotherapy. The use of drugs, typically given intravenously (through a vein) to destroy cancer cells.

Hormone therapy. The use of progesterone, typically taken as a pill, to slow the growth of uterine cancer cells.