Cancer cells that form in the inner layers of tissue lining the uterus (known as the endometrium) is called endometrial cancer. It’s also sometimes referred to as uterine cancer or endometrial cancer. An estimated 49,560 new cases of endometrial cancers are expected to be diagnosed this year, primarily in women over the age of 55.
5 steps to protect your uterus
- Know your risk factors. Women who have a history of an abnormal overgrowth of the endometrium (called endometrial hyperplasia) have an increased risk of developing uterine cancer. Common symptoms of hyperplasia include heavy menstrual periods, bleeding between periods and bleeding after menopause. This condition is most common after age 40. Women may also have a higher risk of developing uterine cancer if they’ve never had children, had their first menstrual period before age 12 or went through menopause after age 55. Other risk factors include a history of taking estrogen alone (not with progesterone), a history of taking tamoxifen to treat breast cancer and a history of radiation to the pelvis. Family history may also be important: Women with a mother, sister or daughter with uterine cancer have a greater risk of developing the disease themselves. Of course, having these risk factors doesn’t mean you’ll develop uterine cancer, and many women who get the disease don’t have any of these factors.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Research shows there is a link between body mass index (BMI) and endometrial cancer. Women with a BMI of 25 or higher are six times more likely to develop endometrial cancer than women at a healthier body weight. Women with a BMI of 35 or greater have an even greater risk. Scientists believe that increased fat tissue can mean more hormones are converted into estrogen, boosting an endometrial cancer risk. On the flip side, studies show that weight loss is associated with a significant reduction in overall cancer risk.
- Follow a well-rounded diet. Eating lots of high-fat foods (especially fat that comes from animals) has been shown to increase the risk of several types of diseases, including endometrial cancer. High-fat foods are also typically higher in calories, which can cause weight gain and further increased your cancer risk. There’s also some research suggesting that regularly having soy products (such as tofu or soy milk) can protect against endometrial cancer.
- Be physically active. Exercising on a regular basis is good for preventing lots of chronic diseases, and cancer is no exception. There appears to be a special link between physical activity and uterine cancer: Research shows that regular exercise can help slash the risk of uterine cancer by up to 46 percent among postmenopausal women who are active 90 minutes or more a day, compared to those who move less than 30 minutes a day. Other research has shown that regular exercise is associated with a 38 percent decrease in risk, regardless of duration or intensity.
- Consider oral contraception. If you’re interested in using birth control, oral contraceptives may provide an edge when it comes to reducing uterine cancer risk. Research shows that taking birth control pills that contain both estrogen and progesterone for at least one year can decrease endometrial cancer risk—and the benefits continue to last for at least 15 years after you’ve stopped taking the pill. Remember oral contraceptives do carry their own risks, including increased risk of blood clots, stroke and heart attack, especially among women who smoke and are over age 35.
Ask Your Doctor
About 9 out of 10 women with endometrial cancer experience abnormal vaginal bleeding—sometimes starting as a watery, blood-streaked flow that gradually contains more blood as it continues. Other symptoms may include pain when emptying the bladder, during sex or in the pelvic area.
See your doctor if you develop any of these symptoms. You’ll likely have a physical exam, including a pelvic exam to check your uterus, vagina and other nearby tissues for any lumps or changes in shape or size. Blood tests can also look for markers like CA125, a substance that many endometrial (and ovarian) cancers release into the bloodstream. You may also get an ultrasound test to get a better look at your uterus, including a transvaginal ultrasound that uses a probe inserted into the vagina. If something looks suspicious your doctor will likely take a biopsy, removing a small amount of tissue to check for cancer cells.
Endometrial cancers range from stage 1a (cancer is found in the uterus only, and just in the endometrium or less than halfway through the muscle layer of the uterus, called the myometrium) or stage 1b (cancer has spread halfway or more into the myometrium) to stage 4 (cancer has spread beyond the pelvis, either to the bladder and bowel or into the abdomen and/or lymph nodes in the groin.)
Standard treatment options include surgery to remove the cancer (typically a totally hysterectomy to remove the uterus), as well as radiation therapy and chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells or stop them from growing. Hormone therapy (removing hormones or blocking their action) may also be employed, using drugs, surgery or radiation to reduce the production of hormones that are spreading the cancer or block them from working.
At North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute, we treat the entire person, not just the cancer. And because each diagnosis is unique, we customize a treatment plan to fit your specific needs. We’ll have questions. You’ll have questions. Together, we’ll have a dialogue that continues throughout your care so you have an active role in deciding next steps, making choices and selecting the best treatment options available.
Find a cancer specialist at the North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute.