Cancer of the uterus (uterine cancer) mostly affects women over 50. This cancer is also known as cancer of the womb, uterine cancer, endometrial cancer and cancer of the lining of the womb. Symptoms of uterine cancer may include unusual bleeding and watery, bloody discharge from the vagina. Less common symptoms include bloating and discomfort in the abdomen and pain during sex.
The uterus (womb) is part of the female reproductive system. It is shaped like an upside-down pear and sits inside the pelvis. It is in the uterus that a fertilised egg grows into a baby.
More than 577 Victorian women are diagnosed with cancer of the uterus every year. Most of these women are over the age of 50 years. Cancer of the uterus is also known as cancer of the womb, uterine cancer, endometrial cancer and cancer of the lining of the womb.
Causes of uterine cancer
The exact cause of uterine cancer is not known. Some things seem to put women at more risk including:
- endometrial hyperplasia (an abnormal increase in the number of cells in the endometrium)
- menopause, never having children or being infertile
- being overweight
- high blood pressure and diabetes
- a family history of endometrial, breast or bowel cancer
- being on oestrogen hormone therapy without progesterone
- being on tamoxifen or anastrozole for treatment of breast cancer. if you are on either of these medications, you should discuss this risk with your doctor.
Symptoms of uterine cancer
The most common symptoms of uterine cancer are:
watery, bloody discharge from the vagina, which can sometimes be smelly.
Less common symptoms include bloating and discomfort in the abdomen and pain during sex. If the cancer is very advanced, other symptoms may be present, such as tiredness, loss of weight and constipation.
Unusual bleeding or discharge can happen before and after menopause. It is usually not due to cancer of the uterus. However, all women with unusual bleeding or discharge should see their doctor for a check-up.
Types of uterine cancer
Most cases of cancer of the uterus are cancers of the uterus lining (endometrium), though some cancers grow in the muscle layers of the uterus.
The different types of uterine cancer include:
- Adenocarcinoma of the endometrium – around 85 per cent of women diagnosed with cancer of the uterus have this form. An adenocarcinoma is a cancer that starts in the glandular tissue.
- High-risk cancers − less common types of cancer (such as adenosquamous carcinoma, papillary serous carcinoma and clear cell carcinoma) are more likely than others to spread around the body.
- Endometrial hyperplasia – sometimes, women develop a thick uterus lining that can cause heavy periods. Some types of endometrial hyperplasia may later become precancerous.
Diagnosis of uterine cancer
The tests used to diagnose cancer of the uterus include:
- physical examination − to check the abdomen for swelling
- transvaginal ultrasound – to look at the size of the ovaries, uterus and thickness of the endometrium
- biopsy – removing some tissue so it can be looked at under a microscope. This can be done in several ways including having a dilatation and curettage (D&C)
- x-rays and other scans – such as computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- blood tests − to check your general health and help make decisions about your treatment.
Treatment of uterine cancer
Most cancers of the uterus are diagnosed early and treated before the cancer has spread. Treatment options include:
- Surgery – this is the first and most important treatment for almost all women with uterine cancer. This means removing the uterus (hysterectomy), the fallopian tubes or the ovaries (or both). If cancer has invaded the muscle walls of the uterus, the lymph nodes inside the pelvis and abdomen will also be removed. If cancer has spread to the cervix (neck of the womb), a small part of the upper vagina and the cervix must be taken out as well
- Radiotherapy − this might be external (using a machine to direct x-rays at the part of the body needing treatment) or internal (a radioactive implant is put inside the body close to the cancer). Radiotherapy may be given alone, or before or after surgery.
- Hormone therapy − since cancer of the uterus is sensitive to hormones, oestrogen-blocking drugs might be used as a treatment if the cancer comes back or has spread.
- Chemotherapy − involves anti-cancer drugs being injected into the veins, which kill cancer cells by stopping them from multiplying. This is sometimes given to help control advanced-stage uterine cancers.
- Complementary and alternative therapies – when used alongside your conventional cancer treatment, some of these therapies can make you feel better and improve your quality of life. Others may not be so helpful and in some cases may be harmful. The Cancer Council Victoria booklet called Understanding complementary therapies can be a useful resource.
Your sexuality and uterine cancer
Having uterine cancer and its treatment can affect the way you feel about your body, who you are, your relationships, the way you express yourself sexually and your sexual feelings (your sexuality). These changes can be very upsetting. You may also be very concerned about the effect it may have on your personal relationships.
You may find it difficult or embarrassing to talk about cancer and sexuality. However, most doctors and nurses are very understanding, and even if they're unable to help, they can refer you to a doctor or therapist who specialises in sexual problems.
If you have a partner, it helps to be as open as possible with them about how you are feeling. If you feel you would like to discuss things further, ask your doctor for a referral to a counsellor, or call the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20. The Cancer Council Victoria booklet called Sexuality, intimacy and cancer may also be helpful to read.
Research into uterine cancer
Early detection and better treatment have improved survival for people with uterine cancer. Research for uterine cancer is ongoing. Clinical trials can test the effectiveness of promising new treatments or new ways of combining cancer treatments. Always discuss treatment options with your doctor.
Caring for someone with uterine cancer
Caring for someone with uterine cancer can be a difficult and emotional time. If you or someone you know is caring for someone with uterine cancer, there is support available. The Cancer Council Victoria booklet called Caring for someone with cancer may also be helpful to read.
When a cure isn't possible
If uterine cancer has been diagnosed in its later stages, the cancer may have spread to the point where a cure is no longer possible. Treatment then focuses on improving quality of life by relieving the symptoms (this is called ‘palliative’ treatment).
You may be given chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery to help with this. You may also have medications to relieve pain, nausea and vomiting. The Cancer Council Victoria booklet called Living with advanced cancer may be helpful to read.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Specialist gynaecologist
- Cancer Council Helpline Tel. 13 11 20
- Multilingual Cancer Information Line, Victoria Tel. 13 14 50
Things to remember
- Cancer of the uterus (womb) is one of the most common gynaecological cancers in women.
- Cancer of the uterus lining (endometrium) is the most common form.
- Cancer of the uterus has a very high cure rate.
You might also be interested in:
- Cancer - exercise to help you cope.
- Cancer and food.
- Cancer and heredity.
- Cancer pain management.
- Cancer treatments - chemotherapy.
- Cancer treatments - radiotherapy.
- Fallopian tube cancer.
- Palliative care for adults with a life-threatening condition.
- Reproductive system.
- Vaginal cancer.
- Vulvar cancer.
Want to know more?
Go to More information for support groups, related links and references.
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
(Logo links to further information)
The Cancer Council Victoria
Last reviewed: May 2014
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