Uterine Cancer: A Difficult Diagnosis
Understanding uterine cancer
Uterine cancer is one of the most common cancers affecting women. More than 60,000 new cases of uterine cancer are diagnosed each year.
Uterine cancer starts when cells in the uterus begin to grow out of control and form a tumor. Cancerous tumors are dangerous because they can grow and spread in the body. Not all tumors turn into cancer—some grow but will not spread. Non-cancerous conditions of the uterus include:
- Fibroids – These are a type of non-cancerous tumor located in the muscle of the uterus.
- Endometriosis – This happens when endometrial tissue lining the uterus starts to grow on the outside of the uterus or other organs. This is usually not cancerous.
Types of uterine cancer
There are two major types of uterine cancer:
- Endometrial cancer – This develops from cells in the endometrium. It is different from endometriosis, which is not cancerous, as noted above. Endometrial cancer makes up more than 80% of uterine cancers.
- Sarcoma – This type of uterine cancer develops in the supporting tissues of the uterine glands or in the uterine muscle. Sarcoma accounts for about 2% to 4% of uterine cancers and is treated differently than endometrial cancer.
Common uterine cancer risk factors
These factors can mean a woman is at greater than average risk of uterine cancer:
- Age – Uterine cancer is most common in women over 50.
- Obesity – Women who are overweight or obese have an increased risk of uterine cancer. About 40% of cases are linked to obesity.
- Race – White women are more likely to develop uterine cancer than African-American women.
- Genetics – Uterine cancer may run in some families.
- Other previous cancers – Women who have had breast cancer, colon cancer or ovarian cancer may have inherited a risk of uterine cancer.
- Other health conditions – Women may have an increased risk of uterine cancer if they have diabetes or certain other health conditions.
- Radiation therapy – Women who have had previous radiation therapy for another cancer in the groin or pelvis may have greater than average risk.
- Diet – Women who eat a lot of fatty foods may also be at higher risk.
- Estrogen – Long exposure to estrogen or an imbalance of estrogen may increase the risk.
Uterine cancer: Symptoms and testing
Uterine cancer often has specific symptoms that can help diagnosis. If you have any of the following, see your doctor right away.
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Difficulty or pain when urinating
- Pain during sex
- Pain in the groin or pelvis
If you have these symptoms or are at risk for other reasons, your doctor may do one of these tests to check your status:
- Pelvic exam – Your doctor will check the uterus, vagina, ovaries, and rectum to see if there are any problems. Please note that a Pap test, which is a test for cervical cancer, is not usually helpful in finding uterine cancer. However, sometimes a doctor may order a Pap test to find abnormal glandular cells that are caused by uterine cancer.
- Ultrasound exam – This test uses sound waves to create images of internal organs in order to evaluate them for problems or defects.
- Computed tomography or CT scan – This test makes a picture of the inside of the body using x-rays taken from different angles.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – An MRI uses magnetic fields, not x-rays, to make detailed images of the body. MRI can also be used to measure a tumor’s size.
Uterine cancer: Simplifying the staging
The levels or stages of uterine cancer are complicated because doctors may include many substages. This is a simplified version of uterine cancer staging:
Stage 0 – This is the earliest stage. The cancer is only found in one layer of cells and has stayed in the uterus.
Stage 1 – The cancer is localized to the uterus area. However, it may have spread locally to some degree.
Stage 2 – At this stage, the tumor has spread locally but not to other parts of the body.
Stage 3 – By now, the cancer has spread but not beyond the area of the groin or pelvis.
Stage 4 – At this point the cancer is very advanced and has spread through the body.
Treating uterine cancer
Doctors often recommend using more than one treatment at a time for ovarian cancer, including:
- Removal of the cancerous cells with surgery. This sometimes includes removal of the uterus and other nearby tissues. This is called a “hysterectomy.”
- Bombarding the cancer with high-energy rays. This is called “radiation therapy.”
- Weakening the cancer with anti-cancer drugs. This is called “chemotherapy.”
- Use of hormones or drugs that block production of hormones.
Coping with uterine cancer
Uterine cancer can mean many changes to the way patients feel physically and emotionally. It’s a good idea to get all the support you can as you go through these changes.
- Count on family and friends – Spending time with close friends and family members can ease the stress of cancer and its treatments.
- Talk with your doctor – Your doctor can help by talking with you about your treatments and your progress.
- Connect with outside groups – Many support groups are dedicated to helping cancer patients. Get in touch with organizations like the American Cancer Society for more information.
Regional Cancer Care Associates — Cancer care near your home
For expert uterine cancer diagnosis and treatment close to home, consider Regional Cancer Care Associates (RCCA). We are one of the largest cancer care networks in the country. We’re located in several states—yet we focus on every patient, individually. At RCCA, you’ll receive advanced, dedicated and compassionate cancer care. We work with you and your family to deliver care that’s second to none.