Cancer of the uterus occurs when cells become abnormal and start growing and multiplying out of control. It is also known as uterine cancer and can begin in the lining of the uterus (endometrium), the muscle tissue (myometrium), or the connective tissue supporting the endometrium (stroma). Uterine cancer can be either endometrial cancer (around 95% of all uterine cancers) or the less common uterine sarcoma.
On this page you will find information on:
- How common is cancer of the uterus?
- What are the risk factors?
- Symptoms of cancer of the uterus
- How is cancer of the uterus diagnosed?
- What is the treatment for uterine cancer?
- What is the prognosis?
- What support is available?
How common is cancer of the uterus?
About 450 women in Queensland are diagnosed with uterine cancer each year. It is the fifth most common cancer diagnosed in Australian women and the most commonly diagnosed gynaecological cancer in Australia. About one in 60 women is likely to have uterine cancer by the age of 75.
Types of uterine cancer
Most cancers of the uterus begin in the lining of the uterus (endometrium) and are called endometrial cancers. There are 2 main types:
- Type 1 cancers (linked to an excess of oestrogen) – Usually called endometroid cancers. Type 1 cancers are the most common type of endometrial cancer.
- Type 2 cancers (not linked to oestrogen) – Are much less common. They Include uterine carcinosarcomas (also known as malignant mixed Mullerian tumours), serous carcinoma and clear cell carcinoma. They grow faster than type 1 cancers and are more likely to spread.
These are rare soft tissue sarcomas that develop in the muscle of the uterus or the connective tissue supporting the endometrium, which is called stroma. There are 3 types:
- Endometrial stromal sarcoma – this is a low-grade, slow-growing tumour
- Leiomyosarcoma – this is a faster growing type and may be more likely to spread to other parts of the body
- Undifferentiated sarcoma – just like leimyosacroma this type is faster growing and may be more likely to spread to other parts of the body
Risks factors of cancer of the uterus
The exact cause of cancer of the uterus is unknown, but some factors seem to increase a woman’s risk:
- being over 50
- being postmenopausal
- having endometrial hyperplasia, a benign condition in which the endometrium thickens caused by too much oestrogen
- never having children or being infertile
- starting periods early (before age 12)
- reaching menopause late (after age 55)
- being overweight or obese and/or having diabetes
- having high blood pressure (hypertension)
- a family history of ovarian, uterine or bowel cancer
- having an inherited genetic condition such as Lynch syndrome or Cowden syndrome
- previous ovarian tumours or polycystic ovary syndrome
- taking oestrogen hormone replacement without progesterone
- previous pelvic radiation for cancer
- taking tamoxifen, an anti-oestrogen drug used to treat breast cancer (talk to your doctor if you are concerned about this risk)
Many women who have risk factors don’t develop cancer of the uterus, and some women who do get it have no risk factors.
Symptoms of cancer of the uterus
The most common symptom of cancer of the uterus is unusual vaginal bleeding, particularly any bleeding after menopause. Some women experience a smelly, watery discharge. Other symptoms include abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, difficulty urinating, or a change in bowel habit
Any of these symptoms can happen for other reasons, but it is best to check with your doctor if you are concerned.
If your doctor suspects you have uterine cancer, you may have some of the following tests. but are unlikely to need all of them. The main test for diagnosing cancer of the uterus are;
- pelvic examination
- abdominal or transvaginal ultrasound
- hysteroscopy – examination of the lining of the uterus
- endometrial biopsy – tissue sampling
Further tests include:
Waiting for the test results can be a stressful time. It may help to talk to a friend or family member, a healthcare professional, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
Treatment of cancer of the uterus
The treatment recommended by your doctor will depend on the results of your tests, the type of cancer, where the cancer is, whether it has spread, your age and your general health. Cancer of the uterus is often diagnosed early, before it has spread, and can be treated surgically. For many women, surgery will be the only treatment they need. If the cancer has spread beyond the uterus, radiation therapy, hormone therapy or chemotherapy may also be used.
For more information on the treatment of uterine cancer please refer to the Understanding Cancer of the Uterus booklet.
Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. You may wish to discuss your prognosis and treatment options with your oncologist. However, it is not possible for anyone to predict the exact course of the disease in an individual person. Instead, your doctor can give you an idea about the general outlook for people with the same type and stage of cancer. You will also have tests throughout your treatment to check how the cancer is responding to treatment.
Test results, the type of uterine cancer, the rate and depth of tumour growth, the likelihood of response to treatment, and factors such as your age, level of fitness and medical history are all important in assessing your prognosis. As for most types of cancer, the outcomes tend to be better when uterine cancer is found and treated early.
Discussing your prognosis and thinking about the future can be challenging and stressful. It may help to talk with family and friends. You can also call Cancer Council 13 11 20 if you need more information or emotional support.
Whether you have been diagnosed with cancer of the uterus or have a family member or friend who is affected by cancer, there are times when you may need support. Our professional services and support programs are here to help you.
Find out more about:
- Phone support
- Email support
- Cancer counselling
- Practical and financial support
- Support groups
- Information sessions
You don’t have to face cancer alone – we’re here to help.
For more information on cancer of the uterus please refer to the Understanding Cancer of the Uterus booklet.