What is endometrial cancer?
Gynecologic Oncologist Dr. Sarah Gill answers five questions about this common cancer of the female reproductive system
No matter how large or small, almost any part of our body is susceptible to cancerous tumors. This includes the various anatomy of the female reproductive system. One of the more common reproductive cancers is endometrial cancer.
Endometrial cancer develops when the cells that form the lining (or endometrium) of the uterus change and start to grow out of control, explains Dr. Sarah Gill, gynecologic oncologist with St. Joseph’s/Candler Gynecologic Oncology & Surgical Specialists. These cells have the ability to grow unchecked, invading the wall of the uterus and could potentially spread to other organs.
The uterus is a hollow organ about the size of a medium pear. This is where a fetus grows and develops when a woman is pregnant.
Endometrial cancer is the most common type of cancer in the uterus. In the United States, it’s projected that 65,620 women will be diagnosed with endometrial cancer this year. It’s the sixth most common cancer in women in the United States.
The good news is generally endometrial cancers are identified early – when the cancer is still confined to the uterus – and have a good prognosis, Dr. Gill says.
“Most endometrial cancers grow slowly. However, certain types of endometrial cancers are more aggressive, the ‘type 2’ category, but these are much less common.”
While everyone’s case and experience can differ, here are a few common things to know about endometrial cancer.
What causes it?
Unfortunately, experts do not know what causes most cases of endometrial cancer. They do know most endometrial cancer cells have estrogen and/or progesterone receptors on their surface. They believe the interaction between these receptions and hormones lead to increased growth of the endometrium. This increased growth can become more and more abnormal until it develops into a cancer.
Healthcare researchers also are studying potential DNA changes of certain genes that may be linked to endometrial cancer.
What are the risk factors for endometrial cancer?
One thing healthcare experts know is there are certain risk factors that are linked to endometrial cancer. These risk factors include:
- Having a history of hormone imbalance
- Poor diet and lack of exercise
- Type 2 diabetes
- Family history
- Having breast or ovarian cancer in the past
Although certain factors can increase a woman’s risk for endometrial cancer, they don’t always cause the disease. Many women with risk factors may never develop endometrial cancer.
Nonetheless, it’s important for everyone’s overall health to control the things you can – diet, exercise, weight, not smoking, limit alcohol use and seeing your healthcare providers regularly. These can be simple steps in reducing your risk of getting endometrial cancer, as well as other cancers and chronic diseases.
What are the signs and symptoms of endometrial cancer?
There are signs and symptoms that may point to endometrial cancer including:
- Unusual vaginal bleeding, spotting or other discharge
- Pelvic pain
- A mass
- Unexplained weight loss
“Most of the time, the first sign of endometrial cancer is abnormal bleeding,” Dr. Gill says. “Pay attention to your body and contact your doctor if you have abnormal bleeding or any other concerns.”
How is endometrial cancer diagnosed?
Endometrial cancer is most often diagnosed by your gynecologist. He or she will ask you about any symptoms, risk factors and medical history. Your doctor also will do a physical and pelvic exam.
Other testing methods also may be used to help diagnose endometrial cancer such as an ultrasound, tissue sampling or biopsy.
If you are diagnosed with endometrial cancer, your gynecologist may be able to treat it, but most likely you’ll be referred to a gynecologic oncologist, like Dr. Gill, who is an expert in treating cancers of the female reproductive tract.
How do you treat endometrial cancer?
Endometrial cancer is curable, especially in the early stages when the cancer hasn’t spread to lymph nodes or other organs, Dr. Gill says.
“All types and stages are treatable, usually with surgery and sometimes with radiation and/or chemotherapy, depending on the characteristics of the cancer,” Dr. Gill says. “Patients with more aggressive types of endometrial cancers and also those with cancer that has spread to other organs at the time of diagnosis have a higher risk of the cancer coming back after treatment.”
Coming Thursday: We take a closer look at treating endometrial cancer in Thursday’s Living Smart blog.