Endometrial cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the endometrium.
The endometrium is the lining of the uterus, a hollow, muscular organ in a woman’s pelvis. The uterus is where a fetus grows. In most nonpregnant women, the uterus is about 3 inches long. The lower, narrow end of the uterus is the cervix, which leads to the vagina.
Cancer of the endometrium is different from cancer of the muscle of the uterus, which is called sarcoma of the uterus. Refer to the PDQ summary on Uterine Sarcoma Treatment for more information.
Taking tamoxifen for breast cancer or taking estrogen alone (without progesterone) can affect the risk of developing endometrial cancer.
Endometrial cancer may develop in breast cancer patients who have been treated with tamoxifen. A patient taking this drug should have a pelvic exam every year and report any vaginal bleeding (other than menstrual bleeding) as soon as possible. Women taking estrogen (a hormone that can affect the growth of some cancers) alone have an increased risk of developing endometrial cancer. Taking estrogen in combination with progesterone (another hormone) does not increase a woman’s risk of this cancer.
Signs and symptoms
These and other symptoms may be caused by endometrial cancer. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:
> Bleeding or discharge not related to menstruation (periods).
> Difficult or painful urination.
> Pain during sexual intercourse.
> Pain in the pelvic area.
Because endometrial cancer begins inside the uterus, it does not usually show up in the results of a Pap test. For this reason, a sample of endometrial tissue must be removed and examined under a microscope to look for cancer cells. One of the following procedures may be used:
Endometrial biopsy: The removal of tissue from the endometrium (inner lining of the uterus) by inserting a thin, flexible tube through the cervix and into the uterus. The tube is used to gently scrape a small amount of tissue from the endometrium and then remove the tissue samples. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells.
Dilatation and curettage: Surgery to remove samples of tissue or the inner lining of the uterus. The cervix is dilated and a curette (spoon-shaped instrument) is inserted into the uterus to remove tissue. Tissue samples may be taken and checked under a microscope for signs of disease. This procedure is also called a D&C.
In stage I, cancer is found in the uterus only. Stage I is divided into stages IA, IB, and IC, based on how far the cancer has spread.
> Stage IA: Cancer is in the endometrium only.
> Stage IB: Cancer has spread into the inner half of the myometrium (muscle layer of the uterus).
> Stage IC: Cancer has spread into the outer half of the myometrium.
In stage II, cancer has spread from the uterus to the cervix, but has not spread outside the uterus. Stage II is divided into stages IIA and IIB, based on how far the cancer has spread into the cervix.
> Stage IIA: Cancer has spread to the glands where the cervix and uterus meet.
> Stage IIB: Cancer has spread into the connective tissue of the cervix.
In stage III, cancer has spread beyond the uterus and cervix, but has not spread beyond the pelvis. Stage III is divided into stages IIIA, IIIB, and IIIC, based on how far the cancer has spread within the pelvis.
Stage IIIA: Cancer has spread to one or more of the following:
> the outermost layer of the uterus; or
> tissue just beyond the uterus; or
> the peritoneum.
0) Stage IIIB: Cancer has spread beyond the uterus and cervix, into the vagina.
1) Stage IIIC: Cancer has spread to lymph nodes near the uterus.
In stage IV, cancer has spread beyond the pelvis. Stage IV is divided into stages IVA and IVB, based on how far the cancer has spread.
> Stage IVA: Cancer has spread to the bladder and/or bowel wall.
> Stage IVB: Cancer has spread to other parts of the body beyond the pelvis, including lymph nodes in the abdomen and/or groin.
Recurrent Endometrial Cancer
Recurrent endometrial cancer is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the pelvis, in lymph nodes in the abdomen, or in other parts of the body.
Surgery (removing the cancer in an operation) is the most common treatment for endometrial cancer. The following surgical procedures may be used:
Total hysterectomy: Surgery to remove the uterus, including the cervix. If the uterus and cervix are taken out through the vagina, the operation is called a vaginal hysterectomy. If the uterus and cervix are taken out through a large incision (cut) in the abdomen, the operation is called a total abdominal hysterectomy. If the uterus and cervix are taken out through a small incision (cut) in the abdomen using a laparoscope, the operation is called a total laparoscopic hysterectomy.
Hormone therapy is a cancer treatment that removes hormones or blocks their action and stops cancer cells from growing. Hormones are substances made by glands in the body and circulated in the bloodstream. Some hormones can cause certain cancers to grow. If tests show that the cancer cells have places where hormones can attach (receptors), drugs, surgery, or radiation therapy are used to reduce the production of hormones or block them from working.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the spinal column, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). Bladder cancer may be treated with intravesical (into the bladder through a tube inserted into the urethra) chemotherapy. The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.
> Bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy: Surgery to remove both ovaries and both fallopian tubes.
> Radical hysterectomy: Surgery to remove the uterus, cervix, and part of the vagina. The ovaries, fallopian tubes, or nearby lymph nodes may also be removed.