Endometrial cancer—sometimes referred to as uterine cancer—is the most common cancer of the female reproductive organs. Approximately 63,000 diagnosed in the U.S. alone each year. Mainly affecting postmenopausal women, endometrial cancer occurs when cancer cells form in the tissues of the endometrium, or the lining of the uterus.
Symptoms of endometrial cancer include:
- Bleeding or discharge not related to menstruation
- Difficult or painful urination
- Pelvic pain
- Pain during sexual intercourse
While these symptoms do not always indicate endometrial or other gynecologic cancers, it’s important to notice these types of changes and notify your doctor right away, especially if vaginal bleeding occurs in a woman after her menopause.
Some women may be at a higher risk for developing the disease. Major risk factors include:
- A family history of endometrial cancer
- A family history of Lynch syndrome, a rare inherited condition that increases the risk of developing certain cancers
- Older age, as the average age of women diagnosed is 60
- Being overweight or obese
- Hormonal changes, such as the onset of menopause or taking estrogen alone (without progesterone)
- Previous diagnoses of breast or ovarian cancer
A diagnostic team looks for endometrial cancer by first conducting a Pap test in conjunction with a pelvic exam to identify any abnormal cells or lumps around the vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, or rectum. Abnormalities found in the Pap smear and/or exam prompt additional testing to identify cancer cells, which may include ultrasounds, CT scans, biopsies, or further invasive tests.
There are currently no standard screening guidelines to identify endometrial cancer in its early stages—therefore, it’s important for women to have regular gynecologic exams to monitor for any changes. Between exams, women should notify their care providers at the first sign of any symptoms or changes to their gynecologic health.
With early detection, endometrial cancer can be a highly curable cancer, generally treated with surgery for stage I cancers that have not spread beyond the uterus. Depending on the stage of the disease or other factors, a combination of chemotherapy, radiation, and hormonal therapy, may also be necessary to treat endometrial cancer. As treatment for endometrial cancer advances, clinical trials are underway to examine the effect of targeted therapies and immunotherapies on patients with cancers that have been drug-resistant or otherwise difficult to treat.