What is endometrial cancer? How common is it? How is it diagnosed? What are the risk factors for endometrial cancer? How is this cancer treated? If you or a loved one is diagnosed with this type of cancer, you probably have these questions – and many more. You’re not alone. Endometrial cancer is the most commonly occurring cancer of the female reproductive organs. According to the American Cancer Society, each year more than 42,100 new cases of cancer of the body of the uterus, which includes endometrial cancer, are diagnosed and approximately 7,780 women die of these diseases.
Endometrial cancer starts in the inner lining of the uterus, which is called the endometrium. This form of cancer rarely occurs in women under the age of 40. It can take years to develop and is more often diagnosed in women over the age of 50; more than half of all cases are found in women between the ages of 50 and 69. Women at increased risk for developing endometrial cancer include those who have:
- Taken estrogen-only replacement therapy
- A history of endometrial polyps or other benign growths of the lining of the uterus
- Infertility or never been pregnant
- Sporadic periods
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome
- Early menstruation (before age 12) or late menopause (after age 50)
- Been obese
No screening test is commonly recommended to detect endometrial cancer. Because most women with the disease have gone through menopause, a common symptom they would experience is vaginal bleeding. Other symptoms may include lower abdominal pain, unusual vaginal discharge and pain when urinating or during sexual intercourse. Some endometrial cancers may reach an advanced stage before causing any symptoms.
Tests used to confirm the diagnosis of endometrial cancer are an endometrial biopsy or dilation and curettage. A biopsy requires inserting a small, flexible tube into the uterus through the cervix and removing by suction a small amount of the endometrium. Dilation and curettage may be done if the biopsy sample does not provide an adequate amount of tissue. This procedure involves enlarging the opening of the cervix and using a special instrument to scrape tissue from inside the uterus.
Treatment options for endometrial cancer include surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Surgically removing the uterus, a procedure called a hysterectomy, may be performed for women whose cancer is diagnosed at an early stage. Surgery may be combined with radiation therapy if the disease has a high probability of recurring, has spread to the lymph nodes, or is slightly more advanced. Chemotherapy may be recommended for women whose cancer has spread beyond the pelvic area.
Throughout the course of her lifetime, a woman has a one in 40 chance of developing endometrial cancer. Fortunately, it is a type of cancer that is highly curable and usually found before it has spread. The five-year survival rate for the disease exceeds 95 percent when diagnosed at an early stage.
For more information about endometrial cancer, talk with your doctor or visit the American Cancer Society website at www.cancer.org.