SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- Cancer of the uterus is the most commonly diagnosed gynaecological cancer in Australia.
- Cancer of the uterus is often diagnosed early, before it has spread.
- In most cases, surgery to remove the uterus and cervix is the only treatment needed. This operation is called a total hysterectomy.
Cancer of the uterus occurs when cells in any part of the uterus become abnormal, grow out of control and form a lump called a tumour. Each year, about 3,200 Australian women are diagnosed with uterine cancer, and most are over 50 years old. Uterine cancer is the fifth most common cancer in women and the most commonly diagnosed gynaecological cancer in Australia.
Anyone with a uterus can get uterine cancer, including women, transgender men and intersex people.
Signs and symptoms of cancer of the uterus
- a change in your periods
- heavier than usual periods
- bleeding between periods
- constant bleeding (periods that continue without a break)
- bleeding or spotting after .
A less common symptom is a smelly, watery vaginal discharge. In rare cases, symptoms include abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, difficulty urinating or a change in bowel habit.
Not everyone with these symptoms has cancer of the uterus. If you have any of these symptoms or are worried, always see your doctor.;
Risk factors of cancer of the uterus
There are some things that can make you more likely to develop cancer of the uterus. These are called risk factors and they include:
- Age – uterine cancer is most common in women over 50 years old and in women who have stopped having periods.
- Body weight – being is a major risk factor.
- Medical factors – including having , having previous pelvic radiation therapy for cancer and having endometrial hyperplasia.
- Family history – having one or more close blood relatives diagnosed with uterine, or , or inheriting a genetic condition such as Lynch syndrome or Cowden syndrome.
- Reproductive history – not having children.
- Hormonal factors – including starting periods before the age of 12, going through menopause after the age of 55, taking some types of oestrogen-only menopause hormone therapy (MHT) or taking tamoxifen, an anti-oestrogen drug used for .
Having these risk factors doesn’t mean you will develop cancer of the uterus. Often there is no clear reason for getting cancer of the uterus. If you are worried about your risk factors, ask your doctor for advice.
Tests for cancer of the uterus
Your doctor may do some tests to check for cancer of the uterus, including:
- Pelvic examination – the doctor will feel your abdomen (belly) to check for swelling and any masses. To check your uterus, the doctor will place 2 fingers inside your vagina while pressing on your abdomen with their other hand.
- Pelvic – uses soundwaves to create a picture of the uterus and ovaries.
- Endometrial – a long, thin plastic tube called a pipelle is inserted into your vagina and through the cervix to gently suck cells from the lining of the uterus, which are sent to a specialist doctor for examination.
- Hysteroscopy and biopsy – this type of biopsy is taken during a hysteroscopy. The doctor uses surgical instruments to gently widen (dilate) the cervix and then removes some tissue from the uterine lining to examine for abnormalities.
Your doctor might ask you to have further tests. These can include:
- – you may have a chest x-ray to check your lungs and heart.
- – you will usually have a CT (computerised tomography) scan of your chest, abdomen and pelvis.
- – uses a powerful magnet and radio waves to create detailed cross-sectional pictures of the inside of your body.
- – you will be injected with a small amount of a glucose (sugar) solution, to allow cancer cells to show up brighter on the scan.
- – which may include a full blood count and a tumour marker test.
Types of cancer of the uterus
Endometrial cancers – around 95 per cent of all uterine cancers
Cancers that begin in cells in the lining of the uterus (endometrium) are called endometrial cancers. There are 2 main types:
- Type 1 cancers (linked to an excess of oestrogen) are the most common endometrial cancers. Most are adenocarcinomas, which start in glandular cells. They usually grow slowly and are less likely to spread.
- Type 2 cancers (not linked to oestrogen) are much less common but grow faster and are more likely to spread. They include uterine carcinosarcomas, serous carcinomas and clear cell carcinomas.
Uterine sarcomas – around 5 per cent of all uterine cancers
These are rare soft tissue sarcomas that develop in the cells in the muscle of the uterus or the connective tissue that supports the endometrium. There are 3 types:
- endometrial stromal sarcoma – mostly low-grade, slow-growing tumours
- leiomyosarcoma – faster-growing and more likely to spread
- undifferentiated sarcoma – faster-growing and more likely to spread.
Stages and grades of cancer of the uterus
The stage of a cancer means how far it has grown in your body. Uterine sarcomas are staged differently, so discuss this with your specialist.
- Stage 1 means the cancer is found only in the uterus.
- Stage 2 means the cancer has spread from the uterus to the cervix.
- Stage 3 means the cancer has spread beyond the uterus/cervix to the ovaries, fallopian tubes, vagina, or lymph nodes in the pelvis or abdomen.
- Stage 4 means the cancer has spread further, to the bladder, bowel or rectum, throughout the abdomen, to other parts of the body such as the bones or lung, or to lymph nodes in the groin.
The grade of the cancer means how quickly a cancer might grow. Knowing the grade helps your doctor work out the best treatment plan for you. Low grades mean the cancer cells look slightly abnormal, while high grades mean the cancer cells look more abnormal. High grade cancers tend to be more aggressive than lower-grade cancers.
Prognosis and survival rates of cancer of the uterus
When someone is diagnosed with cancer of the uterus, their doctor will give them a prognosis. A prognosis is the doctor’s opinion of how likely the cancer will spread and the chances of getting better. A prognosis depends on the type and stage of cancer, as well as the person’s age and general health.
In general, the earlier cancer of the uterus is diagnosed, the better the outcome. Most early-stage endometrial cancers have a good prognosis with high survival rates.
If cancer is found after it has spread to other parts of the body (advanced cancer), the prognosis is not as good and available treatment options may become limited. There is also a higher chance of the cancer coming back after treatment.
If you have cancer of the uterus, your doctor will talk to you about your individual situation when working out your prognosis. Every person’s experience is different, and there is support available to you.
Treatment of cancer of the uterus
In many cases, surgery will be the only treatment needed. Cancer of the uterus is usually treated with an operation that removes the uterus and cervix (total ), along with both fallopian tubes and ovaries.
If your ovaries appear normal, you don’t have any risk factors, and it is an early-stage, low-grade cancer, you may be able to keep your ovaries.
For cancer of the uterus, is commonly used as an additional treatment after surgery to reduce the chance of the disease coming back. This is called adjuvant therapy. In some cases, radiation therapy may be recommended as the main treatment if other health conditions mean you are not well enough for a major operation.
There are 2 main ways of delivering radiation therapy – internally or externally. Some people are treated with both types of radiation therapy.
High-risk endometrial cancer is often treated with external beam radiation therapy in combination with to reduce the chance of the cancer coming back after treatment is over. When radiation therapy is combined with chemotherapy, it is known as chemoradiation. The chemotherapy drugs make the cancer cells more sensitive to radiation therapy.
Hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone are substances that are produced naturally in the body. They help control the growth and activity of cells. Some cancers of the uterus depend on oestrogen or progesterone to grow. These are known as hormone dependent or hormone-sensitive cancers and can sometimes be treated with hormone therapy.
Hormone therapy may be recommended for uterine cancer that has spread or come back (recurred), particularly if it is a low-grade cancer. It is also sometimes offered as the first treatment if surgery has not been done.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells. The aim is to destroy cancer cells while causing the least possible damage to healthy cells. Chemotherapy may be used:
- for certain types of uterine cancer
- when cancer comes back after surgery or radiation therapy to try to control the cancer and to relieve symptoms
- if the cancer does not respond to hormone therapy
- if the cancer has spread beyond the pelvis when first diagnosed
- during radiation therapy (chemoradiation) or after radiation therapy.
Side effects of cancer of the uterus
All cancer treatments can have side effects. Your treatment team will discuss these with you before you start treatment. Talk to your doctor or nurse about any side effects you are experiencing. Some side effects can be upsetting and difficult, but there is help if you need it. Call Cancer Council on Tel. or email to speak with a caring cancer nurse for support.
Managing lifestyle changes and cancer of the uterus
If both ovaries have been removed or if you’ve had radiation therapy to the pelvic area, you will stop having periods. This is called menopause.
For most women, menopause is a natural and gradual process that starts between the ages of 45 and 55. The symptoms of menopause caused by cancer treatment are usually more severe than during a natural menopause because the body hasn’t had time to get used to the gradual decrease in hormone levels.
Surgery or radiation therapy for cancer of the uterus may mean you are . It may be possible to preserve the ovaries and sometimes the uterus so you can still have children. However, this is not standard treatment and is an option only in certain cases.
You may wish to talk about the possibility and options of fertility preservation with your doctor before treatment begins.
Learning that your reproductive organs will be removed or will no longer function and that you may not be able to have children can be devastating. Even if your family is complete or you did not want children, you may still experience a sense of loss and grief. These reactions are not unusual. Speak to a counsellor or call Cancer Council Tel. to talk to a health professional about your concerns.
Treatment for cancer of the uterus can cause bladder problems. This can include:
- – when urine (wee) leaks from your bladder without your control.
- Radiation – you may feel like you want to pass urine often or have a burning sensation when you wee.
- Blood in your urine – blood can appear in your urine, even months or years after treatment.
Sexuality and cancer of the uterus
Having cancer of the uterus and treatment can change the way you feel about yourself, other people, relationships and sex. These changes can be very upsetting and hard to talk about. Doctors and nurses are very understanding and can give you support. You can ask for a referral to a counsellor or therapist who specialises in body image, sex and relationships.
Radiation therapy to the pelvic area can cause vaginal tissue to lose its elasticity and shrink, narrowing the vagina. If your ovaries were removed, your vagina may also become very dry. These side effects may make vaginal examination by a doctor uncomfortable or difficult and make it painful to have sex. Your doctor may recommend using a vaginal moisturiser or lubricant, hormone cream or vaginal dilators.
Living with advanced cancer
Most people continue to have treatment for advanced cancer as part of palliative care, as it helps manage the cancer and improve their day-to-day lives. Many people think that palliative care is for people who are dying but palliative care is for any stage of advanced cancer. There are doctors, nurses and other people who specialise in palliative care.
Treatment may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy or another type of treatment. It can help in these ways:
- slow down how fast the cancer is growing
- shrink the cancer
- help you to live more comfortably by managing symptoms, like pain.
Treatment depends on:
- where the cancer started
- how far it has spread
- your general health
- your preferences and what you want to do.
Ask your doctor about treatment and palliative care services that may help you.
Support for carers, family and friends of someone with cancer of the uterus
Caring for someone with cancer can be difficult sometimes. If you are caring for someone with cancer, these organisations can help: