Cancer of the womb, often referred to as endometrial cancer, is a common cancer of the female reproductive organs. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2015, about 54,870 new cases of this cancer will be diagnosed in the US. In the UK, each year about 8,475 new cases are found, and womb cancer accounts to 3% of all cancers diagnosed in women, which makes it the 4th most common cancer in this population.
As with all cancers, treatment success depends heavily on early detection. There are many survivors of this disease who continue to lead a normal and satisfying life.
Cancer that Attacks the Lining of the Womb
There are different types of uterine cancers. In most cases, the cancer starts in the inner lining of the womb (or uterus), a layer called the endometrium. Endometrium is a thin lining that changes throughout the menstrual cycle and is affected by female sex hormones.
In rare cases, the cancer can also start in the womb’s outer layer, the muscular layer known as the myometrium, which plays an important part in the delivery of the baby. These cancers are called uterine sarcomas. They make for up to 8% of all uterine cancers and are treated in a different way. Uterine sarcomas will not be covered in this article.
How is Uterine Cancer Different from Cervical Cancer?
Normal uterus is about the size and shape of a medium-sized, upside down pear. It has two parts:
- The body (or the corpus), which is the upper part of the womb.
- The cervix, which makes up the lower part of the womb and extends into the vagina.
Although cervix is technically a part of the womb, when we talk of womb cancers, we refer to cancers that start in the body of the uterus. Cervical cancers can spread to the body of the womb, but they are diagnosed and treated in a different way than uterine cancers.
Signs and Symptoms of Uterine Cancer
The most common symptom is abnormal vaginal bleeding or abnormal discharge from your vagina. If you’ve already been through the menopause, any bleeding is considered unusual. For women pre-menopause, abnormal bleeding is bleeding between periods.
You don’t want to panic and most vaginal bleedings are not connected with cancer. However, it’s always better to be sure.
Other symptoms may include:
- Pain when having sex
- Pain during urination
- Pelvic pain
Uterine Cancer – Risk Factors
Uterine (Endometrial) cancer is more common in women who have been through the menopause, with most cases diagnosed in women aged 40 to 74. This cancer has been connected to hormonal imbalances, which are physiologically more common in older women. The hormonal imbalance (increased levels of estrogen) causes the lining of the uterus to become thicker and provide an environment where cancer cells can grow.
Other risk factors include:
- Diabetes – make sure you are aware of the 13 signs of diabetes
- Endometrial overgrowth (endometrial hyperplasia) – this condition causes thickening of the lining of the womb; it is not cancer, but can develop into womb cancer in some women.
- First period before the age of 12
- Menopause after the age of 55
- Not having children
- Taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
- Long term use of the breast cancer drug tamoxifen (small increase in the risk has been shown)
- Family history of womb cancer
- Radiation to the pelvis
- Lynch syndrome (a form of inherited cancer of the colon)
How to Lower your Risk of Developing Uterine Cancer
Some risks, such as family history and age, are outside your control. But there are still many things you can do to lower your chances of developing womb cancer.
- Eat a balanced diet and maintain a healthy body weight. Fat cells are involved in estrogen production – with more body fat comes more estrogen. Enjoy low-fat, high-fiber diet.
- Exercise regularly. This will help you both reduce your weight and lower estrogen production. According to the NHS website, adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week.
- If you have a baby, breastfeed. This reduces estrogen activity.
- According to NHS website, there is also evidence that long term use of combined contraceptive pill reduces the risk of womb cancer. Other forms of contraception such as contraceptive implants and intrauterine system (IUS) may also reduce the risk.
- If you experience any abnormal bleeding that is unrelated to your period, get it checked. Endometrial hyperplasia can be a cause of abnormal bleeding and should be treated promptly.
- If you need to take tamoxifen to prevent the re-occurrence of breast cancer, discuss the risks with your doctor and have a yearly pelvis examination.
- Uterine Cancer -Treatment
To confirm a diagnosis of womb cancer, a small sample of the tissue from the womb’s inner lining is taken and analyzed (endometrial biopsy).
Treatment options depend on the type and stage of the cancer.
The conventional treatment for womb cancer most commonly involves the surgical removal of the womb (hysterectomy). Often, the ovaries and fallopian tubes need to be removed as well, and if the disease has spread, the lymph nodes surrounding the womb, too. In conjunction with surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy are sometimes used to kill the cancer cells. Some women also undergo hormone therapy to curb cancer growth.
These invasive treatments can cause many side effects and affect the quality of life.
Some side effects can be treated or eased at home using more natural options:
- Ginger and peppermint tea can work with nausea and vomiting.
- If you suffer from diarrhea, make sure you stay well hydrated.
- Manage your energy levels and prioritize your daily activities.
- If possible, keep a balanced and healthy routine.
- If pain and physical discomfort allow, do some exercise. This will also help with your sleep.
- Make sure your pain is well managed. You can try some natural home remedies (such as turmeric, ginger, capsaicin), but discuss it with your doctor first.
- Find somebody to talk to; this can be a good way to relieve the stress and anxiety.