What Is Uterine Cancer—and the Early Symptom You Shouldn’t Ignore
It’s the fourth most common cancer in women in the United States, but it’s usually treatable. Here’s how to recognize the number one sign that something’s wrong.
Do you know what uterine cancer is?
While the term uterine cancer may not be as frequently talked about, you’ve no doubt heard of endometrial cancer, the more common type of this female cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic. This is when cancer forms in the tissues of the lining of the uterus (endometrium). The second type—uterine sarcoma, a cancer that forms in the muscles of the uterus—is rare. Here’s the surprising factor that can raise your risk of endometrial cancer.
Endometrial cancer is one of the most common cancers in women
Endometrial cancer is the fourth most common cancer among women in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Other cancers most common among women are cancers of the breast, colon, lung, and skin, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). There will be over 63,000 new cases (making up 6 percent of cancers in women) of endometrial cancer, and 11,350 deaths, in 2018, the NCI estimates.
There’s one big early symptom to watch for
Endometrial cancer most often strikes women who are over age 55. That makes one of the few uterine cancer symptoms particularly eye-catching: “Postmenopausal bleeding is the heralding symptom. It is distinctly abnormal,” says David Mutch, MD, a gynecologic oncology surgeon at Siteman Cancer Center and chief of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. This bleeding may begin as a watery, blood-streaked flow and gradually contain more blood as bleeding goes on, according to the federal Office on Women’s Health. Learn 15 cancer symptoms women may overlook.
And only one possible action to take
If you’re postmenopausal and are now bleeding vaginally, your priority is to go to the doctor immediately, Dr. Mutch advises. The point here isn’t to cause you to freak out but to understand the seriousness of uterine cancer symptoms. It doesn’t mean that you have cancer—only that any bleeding after menopause is abnormal and should be checked out. Your doctor may want to do a transvaginal ultrasound to measure your uterine lining and take a biopsy if necessary. Find out the 8 silent symptoms of cervical cancer.
What if you’re premenopausal?
While it may be alarming when you’re bleeding after you’ve already gone through menopause, getting your period when you’re premenopausal is to be expected. So how do you know when something’s going on? In younger women, abnormal bleeding is still the most common symptom of uterine cancer, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Pay attention if your periods are irregular, you’re spotting, or you’re bleeding between periods. And don’t miss these 10 signs of early perimenopause.
Other uterine cancer symptoms may be harder to spot
Uterine cancer symptoms (in the endometrium) include more than just bleeding: Abdominal or pelvic pain, bloating, feeling full quickly, and changes in bowel or bladder habits are others, according to ACOG. However, these usually occur during later stages—and they can be caused by many other conditions. “Endometrial cancers are typically small. They won’t usually cause pain unless advanced,” says Dr. Mutch. Still, these can be symptoms of other medical problems as well, from fibroids to cervical or ovarian cancers, so they warrant a trip to the doctor for an evaluation. Read about the 7 symptoms of ovarian cancer you might be ignoring.
What is the treatment?
The good news about endometrial cancer is that the telltale symptom (abnormal bleeding) typically happens in the initial development of the disease, so it’s most often caught in early stages. Treatment is a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) and may also involve radiation; it’s usually successful. “Most people don’t die of this cancer. When caught early in stages 1 and 2, there’s a great prognosis. Most of these cancers are easily curable,” says Dr. Mutch, who notes that the cure rate is 90 percent.
How to prevent uterine cancer
Here’s something you might not expect: Cardiovascular disease is more likely to kill women with endometrial cancer than the cancer itself, according to the NCI. Aside from the fact that endometrial cancer is most often caught early, “obesity may actually be the underlying disease,” says Dr. Mutch. Indeed, rising levels of obesity may be behind the increase in cases of this cancer. Excess fat can lead to excess estrogen, which can thicken the lining and cause irregular bleeding. “Women who are at a normal weight typically don’t get this cancer,” he says. The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to maintain a healthy weight.
What about uterine sarcoma?
This cancer may make up less than 10 percent of uterine cancers, but there are still about 5,000 cases diagnosed annually., according to the ACS. Unfortunately, they’re quick to spread and are often advanced before a woman knows something is wrong. Nonetheless, look for abnormal bleeding, which affects 85 percent of women with this cancer, according to the ACS. Ten percent of women with the condition will experience abnormal discharge. The message here is that you shouldn’t brush off any symptom that doesn’t feel right.
Get genetic testing
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If you are diagnosed with uterine cancer, your doctor should talk to you about genetic testing. Dr. Mutch points out that 5 to 10 percent of women who are diagnosed have a hereditary form of the disease. (One form is Lynch syndrome, which increases the risk of other cancers, like colon cancer.) “All patients with endometrial cancer are tested for this and should be. Ask your doctor if your cancer is hereditary,” says Dr. Mutch. Here’s where knowledge is power: You will also be screened for colon cancer, and you can sound the alarm for family members. Don’t miss these 21 cancer breakthroughs.