One of the types of cancer that women are at risk for is endometrial cancer, which affects the uterus. Though it can be dangerous, the good news is that endometrial cancer is often diagnosed in its early stages, giving the patient much better chances of survival than if the cancer were detected in its advanced stages.
Endometrial cancer is a type of cancer that originates in the uterus. More specifically, this type of cancer starts in the endometrium, which is the layer of cells that makeup the lining of the uterus. Technically, endometrial is one type of uterine cancer. However, out of all of the types of cancer that can form in the uterus, endometrial cancer is the most common.
Endometrial cancers are adenocarcinomas. This means that they affect cells in the glands of the endometrium. There are a few different types of adenocarcinomas that can affect the endometrium:
- Endometroid: This type of adenocarcinoma occurs in the cells of glands that look a lot like the normal endometrium. According to the American Cancer Society, over 80% of endometrial cancer cases are endometroid adenocarcinomas.
- Squamous cell: This type of adenocarcinoma contains squamous cells, which are flat, thin cells found on the surface of the cervix.
- Clear-cell and serous: These two types of endometrial adenocarcinomas that are somewhat rare and much more aggressive than other types of the cancer. When they are diagnosed, these types of cancer have usually already spread to other parts of the body.
One of the advantages of this type of cancer is the obvious symptoms. Because endometrial cancer typically causes sudden and apparent changes in a woman’s body, it can often be diagnosed early on in its development. Some of the key signs and symptoms of endometrial cancer are:
- Bleeding between periods
- Prolonged bleeding during periods
- Vaginal bleeding after menopause has occurred
- Vaginal discharge which is abnormal, watery or blood-tinged
- Pain during intercourse
- Pelvic cramping
- Lower abdominal pain
Causes And Risk Factors
Endometrial cancer is caused by a genetic mutation in the cells of the endometrium. One this occurs, these cells start growing and multiply rapidly and do not die as early as a normal cell would. This causes a mass of abnormal cells which eventually forms a tumor. From there, cancer cells from the tumor may start to invade other parts of the body if the cancer goes untreated.
There are several risk factors which increase a woman’s risk of getting endometrial cancer, including:
- Hormonal changes: The ovaries produce two main hormones – progesterone and estrogen. When the balance between these hormones is changed, the risk for endometrial cancer increases. This may occur as a result of a health condition which increases or decreases the levels of one of these hormones. For example, obesity, diabetes and irregular ovulation patterns can also cause hormone imbalances in the body.
- Years of menstruation: The more years a woman menstruates, the higher her risk for endometrial cancer will be. Women who start their period early (before age 12) and those who start menopause at an older age fall into this category.
- Never being pregnant: Women who have never been pregnant have a higher risk of getting endometrial cancer than those who have been pregnant at least once.
- Age: The risk of developing endometrial cancer increases with age. According to MayoClinic.com, most of the cases of endometrial cancer occur in older women who have already gone through menopause.
- HNPCC: HNPCC stands for hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer. Women with this disease and those who have a family member with HNPCC may have an increased risk of getting endometrial cancer.
- Hormone therapy: Women who have had the hormone therapy drug tamoxifen have an increased risk of getting endometrial cancer. However, for some women there are enough benefits to taking this drug to risk a higher incidence of endometrial cancer. For example, some women with breast cancer take tamoxifen to help treat their disease.
There is no sure way to prevent endometrial cancer. However, taking the following steps can greatly reduce a woman’s risk for the disease:
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Exercise regularly
- Think about taking birth control pills, which reduce the risk for endometrial cancer
- Discuss risks vs. benefits with your doctor when undergoing hormone therapy
When a woman has been diagnosed with endometrial cancer, there are several treatment options. Most women with endometrial cancer are advised to have their uterus removed. In many cases, the fallopian tubes and ovaries are removed as well.
Radiation is often used to kill cancer cells and reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. Radiation involves the use of high-power energy beams to get rid of dangerous cells in the body. Chemotherapy, which involves the use of drugs to kill cancer cells, may also be utilized.
Another treatment option is hormone therapy. Women may need drugs to increase either the progesterone or estrogen in their body in an effort to balance out the levels of these two hormones. This is often an option suggested for women with advanced endometrial cancer.