If you have irregular bleeding, unpleasant and foul-smelling vaginal discharge, bleeding between periods, or pain in the pelvic area, it may be an early warning sign of uterine cancer (also called endometrial cancer or womb cancer).
The uterus, a pear-shaped hollow organ in females, is located in the pelvis. It is a home to the developing fetus during pregnancy and functions to support fetal development until birth. Uterine cancer is the abnormal/malignant growth of cells in the inner lining (endometrium) or muscles of the uterus and commonly affects women over the age of 50 years.
So, if you notice your period is suddenly heavier or more frequent, or you’re bleeding when you shouldn’t be, immediately consult a gynecologist. Let us dive a little to know more about the types, signs and symptoms, risk factors and preventive tips for uterine cancer.
- Types and common signs and symptoms of uterine cancer
- Risk factors that may put you at risk
- What can be done to reduce the risk?
- Diagnosis Options For Uterine Cancer
- Treatment Options For Uterine Cancer
Types and common signs and symptoms of uterine cancer
Uterine cancer is one of the most common types of cancers affecting the female reproductive system. The average age at diagnosis is 60. If left untreated, the cancer cells can spread to the rectum, bladder, vagina, ovaries, fallopian tubes, or more distant organs.
Types of uterine cancer are:
- Endometrial cancer: This is the most common type of uterine cancer and develops in the lining of the uterus
- Uterine sarcoma: This is a rarer type of uterine cancer that occurs in the muscles or other tissues of the uterus.
If you have uterine cancer, you may experience the following signs and symptoms:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding that is usually heavy
- Bloody, dark or foul-smelling discharge
- Unusual vaginal discharge and spotting
- Vaginal bleeding during or after menopause
- Pain during urination and/or sex
- Pain or pressure in the pelvis
- Sudden weight loss
Risk factors that may put you at risk
The exact causes triggering uterine cancers are not clear. However, some factors can put you at a higher risk of endometrial cancer!
- Women with endometrial thickening or overgrowth (hyperplasia-a precursor lesion).
- Obesity: Having more fatty tissue can spike up the levels of estrogen (sex hormone), thus escalating a woman’s risk for cancer of the uterus.
- Diabetes: Diabetes (often associated with obesity) may raise your odds of getting uterine cancer. Especially, the women suffered from non-insulin dependent diabetes and obese known to be at higher risk of getting uterine cancer.
- Age: As you get older, you become more prone to uterine cancer. This cancer most often occurs in women over 50 years of age.
- Infertility: Irregular menstrual cycles and infertility might cause imbalances in the levels of progesterone and estrogen, thus raising the risk.
- Menses initiating at an early age (before age 12).
- Late menopause: The more periods you had, the more estrogen you have produced. Females who achieve menopause at an older age are exposed to estrogen for a longer time. Greater exposure of the endometrium to estrogen puts you at more risk.
- Women who take hormone replacement therapy (only estrogen therapy without progesterone) after menopause. Adding a progestin to the estrogen lowers the risk of endometrial cancer back to normal.
- If you have never been pregnant, then you are at an elevated risk compared to someone who has/had at least one pregnancy since estrogen levels are lower during pregnancy.
- Radiation to the pelvis
- Personal or family history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, uterine cancer, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and Lynch syndrome (commonly reported as a form of inheritedcolorectal cancer).
- Long-term use of tamoxifen to prevent or treat breast cancer.
- Some rare ovarian tumors may produce estrogen, thus triggering the growth of uterine lining.
- Diet/nutrition: Foods high in animal fat (such asred meat) may put you at risk of uterine cancer.
What can be done to reduce the risk?
The below tips may assist in mitigating your risk of uterine cancer:
- Using oral contraceptives or birth control pills for at least 1 year may be protective and minimize your risk. They contain a combination of progesterone and estrogen and decrease the chances of an overgrowth of the uterine lining. But, there are other deleterious side effects with these pills. So, it's better to discuss this option with your medical care provider.
- Using a progestin-secreting intrauterine device (a form of birth control).
- Pregnancy and breast-feeding.
- Taking a combination of estrogen and progesterone for hormone replacement therapy.
- Exercise regularly to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.
- If you have diabetes, regularly monitor your blood sugar levels.
Diagnosis Options For Uterine Cancer
Your physician may conduct transvaginal ultrasound, pelvic examination, hysteroscopy, computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, or endometrial biopsy to detect the thickness of the inner lining, diagnose cancer, and if diagnosed, ascertain the stage of cancer.
With uterine cancer, early detection is key. The good news is that cancer of the uterus grows slowly and usually causes symptoms (abnormal bleeding, including bleeding between periods, after sex, or bleeding after menopause) that can help doctors easily diagnose it.
If it is diagnosed before it spreads to other vital parts of your body, you have a very good chance of recovering. Follow-up care is crucial.
Treatment Options For Uterine Cancer
Most commonly, cancer of the uterus is treated by hysterectomy (surgical removal of a woman's uterus).
Uterine cancer treatment options may also involve targeted drug therapy, radiation therapy, hormone therapy, immunotherapy and chemotherapy.
The uterus is quite sensitive to estrogen. Uterine cancer begins as endometrial hyperplasia and culminates as cancer. Numerous predisposing risk factors make a woman more vulnerable to womb cancer. A complete medical history with clinical assessment aids in early diagnosis, prevents the disease from advancing and helps to achieve a successful treatment.
Also learn about, Myths related to ovarian cancer.