Information and symptoms of uterine cancer

Cancer of the uterus occurs when cells in any part of the uterus become abnormal, grow out of control and form a lump called a tumour. Cancer of the uterus can be either endometrial cancer or the less common uterine sarcoma.

How common is cancer of the uterus

Each year about 450 women in Queensland are diagnosed with uterine cancer, and most are over 50. It is the fifth most common cancer diagnosed in Australian women and the most commonly diagnosed gynaecological cancer in Australia.

Types of cancer of the uterus

Endometrial cancers

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.

Uterine sarcomas

These are rare soft tissue sarcomas that develop in the cells in the muscle of the uterus or the connective tissue supporting the endometrium, which is called stroma. There are 3 types:

Risks factors

The exact cause of cancer of the uterus is unknown, but factors that can increase the risk include:

  • 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
  • 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

The most common symptom of cancer of the uterus is unusual vaginal bleeding. This may include:

  • a change in your periods
  • heavier than usual periods
  • bleeding between periods
  • constant bleeding (periods that continue without a break)
  • bleeding or spotting after menopause

A less common symptom is a smelly, watery vaginal discharge. In rare cases, symptoms include abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, difficultly 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.

Diagnosis

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;

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

Cancer of the uterus is often diagnosed early, before it has spread, and can be treated surgically. In many cases, surgery will be the only treatment needed. If the cancer has spread beyond the uterus, radiation therapy, hormone therapy or chemotherapy may also be used.

Prognosis

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. Instead, your doctor can give you an idea about the general outlook for people with the same type and stage of uterine cancer. To work out your prognosis, your doctor will consider 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.

In general, the earlier cancer of the uterus is diagnosed, the better the outcome. Most early-stage endometrial cancers have a good prognosis with high survival rates. If cancer is found after it has spread to other parts of the body (advanced cancer), the prognosis is not as good, and there is a higher chance of the cancer coming back after treatment.

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.

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:

You don’t have to face cancer alone – we’re here to help.

Resources

For more information on cancer of the uterus please see these resources

If you are a patient, family or friend and would like to order a copy of the Understanding Cancer of the Uterus booklet, please call Cancer Council 13 11 20