What is uterine cancer?

Uterine cancer is a general term that is used to describe a cancer of the uterus (or womb). A uterine cancer that develops in the endometrium (inner lining of the uterus) is called an endometrial cancer. A uterine cancer that develops in the myometrium (muscle wall of the uterus) is called a uterine sarcoma. Uterine sarcomas are very rare.

What are the risk factors for uterine cancer?

The exact cause of uterine cancer is not known, but there are certain risk factors related to the disease. Most of the known risk factors are linked to the balance between the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Some risk factors include:

  • Obesity (being very overweight): Fat tissue in the body can change some other hormones into estrogens. Having more fat tissue can increase a woman's estrogen levels and her risk for developing uterine cancer.
  • History of not being able to become pregnant or having never given birth: Women who have not been pregnant have a higher risk because of the increased exposure to estrogen.
  • Use of tamoxifen: This drug, which is used to treat women with breast cancer, acts like estrogen in the uterus and can increase the risk of uterine cancer.
  • Estrogen replacement therapy (ERT): This therapy (the use of the female hormone estrogen to counteract the effects of menopause) can increase uterine cancer risk if progesterone is not used to protect against precancerous changes in the endometrium.
  • Ovarian diseases: Women who have certain ovarian tumors have higher-than-normal estrogen levels and lower levels of progestins, which can increase a woman's chance of getting uterine cancer.
  • A diet high in animal fat: A high-fat diet can increase the risk of several cancers, including uterine cancer. Because fatty foods are also high-calorie foods, a high-fat diet can lead to obesity, which is a definite uterine cancer risk factor.
  • Diabetes: Diabetes has been linked to weight, but some studies suggest that diabetes by itself could be a risk factor for uterine cancer.
  • Age: As women get older, the likelihood of uterine cancer increases. Most uterine cancers occur in women age 50 or older.
  • Early menstruation: If monthly periods begin before age 12, the risk for this cancer might increase as the uterus might be exposed to estrogen for more years.
  • Late menopause: If menopause occurs after age 50, the risk for this cancer might increase as the uterus might be exposed to estrogen for more years.
  • Total length (years) of menstruation span: The span (length in years) of menstruation might be a more important factor than the age at which periods started or ended.
  • Family history: Uterine cancer risk is increased in some families who are also at risk to develop a certain type of colon cancer.
  • Earlier pelvic radiation therapy: Radiation used to treat some other cancers can damage the DNA of cells, increasing the risk of a second type of cancer.

What are the symptoms of uterine cancer?

The following symptoms might occur with uterine cancer or other conditions:

  • Vaginal bleeding between normal periods in pre-menopausal women.
  • Vaginal bleeding or spotting in post-menopausal women, even a small amount.
  • Lower abdominal pain or cramping in the pelvis area.
  • Thin white or clear discharge in post-menopausal women.
  • Extremely long, heavy, or frequent vaginal bleeding episodes in women over 40.