Topic updated: August 2012

Uterine Cancer / Endometrial Cancer

The Uterus

The uterus is part of a woman’s reproductive system. It’s a hollow organ in the pelvis.

The uterus has three parts:

The wall of the uterus has two layers of tissue:

Understanding Cancer

Cancer begins in cells, the building blocks that make up tissues. Tissues make up the uterus and the other organs of the body.

Normal cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When normal cells grow old or get damaged, they die, and new cells take their place.

Sometimes, this process goes wrong. New cells form when the body doesn’t need them, and old or damaged cells don’t die as they should. The buildup of extra cells often forms a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.

Tumors in the uterus can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). Benign tumors are not as harmful as malignant tumors:

  • Benign tumors (such as a fibroid, a polyp, or endometriosis):
    • are usually not a threat to life
    • can be treated or removed and usually don’t grow back
    • don’t invade the tissues around them
    • don’t spread to other parts of the body

  • Malignant growths:
    • may be a threat to life
    • usually can be removed but can grow back
    • can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs (such as the vagina)
    • can spread to other parts of the body

    Cancer cells can spread by breaking away from the uterine tumor. They can travel through lymph vessels to nearby lymph nodes. Also, cancer cells can spread through the blood vessels to the lung, liver, bone, or brain. After spreading, cancer cells may attach to other tissues and grow to form new tumors that may damage those tissues. See the Staging section for information about uterine cancer that has spread.

Risk Factors

When you get a diagnosis of uterine cancer, it’s natural to wonder what may have caused the disease. Doctors usually can’t explain why one woman gets uterine cancer and another doesn’t.

However, we do know that women with certain risk factors may be more likely than others to develop uterine cancer. A risk factor is something that may increase the chance of getting a disease.

Studies have found the following risk factors for uterine cancer:

  • Abnormal overgrowth of the endometrium (endometrial hyperplasia): An abnormal increase in the number of cells in the lining of the uterus is a risk factor for uterine cancer. Hyperplasia is not cancer, but sometimes it develops into cancer. Common symptoms of this condition are heavy menstrual periods, bleeding between periods, and bleeding after menopause. Hyperplasia is most common after age 40.

    To prevent endometrial hyperplasia from developing into cancer, the doctor may recommend surgery to remove the uterus (hysterectomy) or hormone therapy with progesterone and regular follow-up exams.

  • Obesity: Women who are obese have a greater chance of developing uterine cancer.

  • Reproductive and menstrual history: Women are at increased risk of uterine cancer if at least one of the following apply:
    • Have never had children
    • Had their first menstrual period before age 12
    • Went through menopause after age 55
  • History of taking estrogen alone: The risk of uterine cancer is higher among women who used estrogen alone (without progesterone) for menopausal hormone therapy for many years.

  • History of taking tamoxifen: Women who took the drug tamoxifen to prevent or treat breast cancer are at increased risk of uterine cancer.

  • History of having radiation therapy to the pelvis: Women who had radiation therapy to the pelvis are at increased risk of uterine cancer.

  • Family health history: Women with a mother, sister, or daughter with uterine cancer are at increased risk of developing the disease. Also, women in families that have an inherited form of colorectal cancer (known as Lynch syndrome) are at increased risk of uterine cancer.

Many women who get uterine cancer have none of these risk factors, and many women who have known risk factors don’t develop the disease.

Read the rest of this excellent article from the National Cancer Institute.

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