Understanding Endometrial Cancer
Although one of the rarer cancers, it is worth knowing what to look for if your cycle or bleeding pattern changes.
In the UK, about 8,475 new cases of endometrial (womb) cancer are diagnosed each year. It is more common in women who have been through the menopause, and most cases are diagnosed in women aged 40 to 74.
What is endometrial cancer?
Womb cancer accounts for about 3% of all cancers diagnosed in women and can affect the uterus which is lined with a special tissue called the endometrium.
When cancer grows in this lining, it is called endometrial cancer and most cancers of the uterus are endometrial cancer.
If left untreated, endometrial cancer can spread to the bladder or rectum, or it can spread to the vagina, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and more distant organs.
Fortunately, endometrial cancer grows slowly and, with regular checkups, is usually found before spreading very far.
Two signs and symptoms of endometrial cancer
There are a few symptoms that may point to endometrial cancer. Some are more common as the cancer becomes advanced as it grows and spreads.
1. Unusual vaginal bleeding, spotting, or other discharge
About 90% of women with endometrial cancer have abnormal vaginal bleeding. This might be a change in their periods, bleeding between periods, or bleeding after menopause.
Non-cancer problems can also cause abnormal bleeding but it’s important to have a doctor check out any irregular bleeding right away.
If you’ve gone through menopause, it’s especially important to report any vaginal bleeding, spotting, or abnormal discharge to your doctor.
Non-bloody vaginal discharge may also be a sign of endometrial cancer. Even if you can’t see blood in the discharge, it doesn’t mean there’s no cancer. Any abnormal discharge should be checked out by a doctor.
2. Pelvic pain, a mass, and weight loss
Pain in the pelvis, feeling a mass (tumour), and losing weight without trying can also be symptoms of endometrial cancer.
These symptoms are more common in later stages of the disease but any delay in seeking medical help may allow the disease to progress even further. This lowers the odds of treatment being successful.
Although any of these symptoms can be caused by things other than cancer, it’s important to have them checked out by a doctor.
Who is at risk?
Endometrial cancer usually happens in women past menopause. More than 95% of endometrial cancer happens in women over 40.
Postmenopausal women have a high risk for endometrial cancer if they:
- Got their first period early
- Went through menopause late
- Are obese
- Have diabetes or high blood pressure
- Have few or no children
- Have a history of infertility, irregular periods, or endometrial hyperplasia
- Have a family history of endometrial, colorectal, or breast cancer
Other risk factors for all women include:
- Women taking the drug tamoxifen to treat or prevent breast cancer have a slightly higher risk of endometrial cancer.
- But women who have taken birth control pills are only half as likely to have endometrial cancer after menopause.
- Women who take oestrogen-only hormone replacement therapy have a higher risk of developing endometrial cancer so women who have not had a hysterectomy should not be taking oestrogen-only hormone replacement therapy.
- Rare ovarian tumours can make oestrogen and increase a woman’s chance of having endometrial cancer.
- High-fat diets, especially containing red meat, can increase the risk of several types of cancer.