The uterus, or womb, is the female reproductive organ in which a fetus develops during pregnancy. When cells displaying uncontrolled growth, invasion, and/or metastasis arise in the uterus, a cancer may develop. These cells, having undergone an anomalous transformation that causes them to proliferate abnormally, form a structure called a neoplasm. If this neoplasm destroys adjacent tissues, and/or spreads to other areas of the body, a cancer is formed.
Uterine cancer is sometimes referred to as endometrial cancer. It is important to note that these two terms are not consistently interchangeable. An endometrial cancer is a cancer of the lining of the uterus, but uterine cancers may also arise in other parts of the organ. Thus, this synonymy is not conducive to a comprehensive understanding of the disease. Uterine cancer does, however, arise in the endometrium more frequently than in any other part of the organ. In fact, endometrial cancer is the most common form of uterine cancer; it is also one of the most common cancers among all North American women.
Fortunately, uterine cancers are often discovered at an early stage. They have a tendency to produce easily recognized symptoms, providing women with a very obvious indicator that they need to consult their healthcare provider. Additionally, most uterine cancers occur after menopause, a developmental stage after which many women in the United States schedule regular cancer screenings and physical exams.
Uterine Cancer Risk Factors
Most of uterine cancer’s risk factors are related to an overabundance of estrogen.
- No Pregnancy: Statistics have shown that women who have never been pregnant are more likely to host a uterine cancer. Researchers are not sure why pregnancy reduces a woman’s risk, but it is believed that the body’s production of progesterone during pregnancy offsets the rising estrogen levels associated with aging women.
- Many Years of Menstruation: Women that started menstruating before the age of 12, or began menopause later in life, are at a greater risk of developing uterine cancer. This is because menstruation exposes the endometrium to estrogen.
- Irregular Ovulation: Since estrogen levels regulate ovulation, any irregularities in this process can result in uterus being overexposed to the hormone.
- Obesity: Fat tissue produces estrogen, resulting in increased risk in overweight women.
- Diabetes: Research has shown that women with diabetes are more likely to develop uterine cancer, but the experts have not identified the link between diabetes and cancer of the uterus.
- Estrogen Therapies: Any drug therapies that may increase estrogen levels in the body will increase a woman’s chances of developing uterine cancer.
- Ovarian Tumors: Tumors of the ovaries (benign or malignant) can result in the overproduction of estrogen.
- Age: Uterine cancers occur more frequently in women over the age of 55.
- Personal History of Ovarian or Breast Cancers: Ovarian and Breast cancers share many of the same risk factors as uterine cancer; most of which are related to the overproduction of estrogen.
- Ethnicity: Caucasian women are more likely to develop uterine cancer, but black women are more likely to die as a result of a uterine cancer.
- Hereditary Nonpolyposis Colorectal Cancer (HNPCC): This inherited disease results in an increased risk of developing uterine and many other cancers. HNPCC is caused by anomalous changes to a DNA repair gene. The precise link between HNPCC and uterine cancer is not well understood, but it is somehow related to abnormalities in the DNA repair gene.
- Tamoxifen Treatment: Although this treatment is designed to be an estrogen blocker, it has many estrogen-like effects. It causes the lining of the uterus to grow, resulting in an increased chance of developing a uterine cancer.
Uterine Cancer Outlook
A uterine cancer prognosis is affected by the stage of the cancer, how the cancer cells appear during a microscopic evaluation, and whether or not the cells are affected by progesterone (or synthetic versions of progesterone). A favorable prognosis indicates a cancer that should respond well to treatment. For the most part, uterine cancer is detected early and can be cured if the cancer can be surgically removed.
Uterine Cancer Prevention
- Birth Control: The prolonged use of oral contraceptives can reduce a woman’s risk of developing a uterine cancer.
- Healthy Weight: Obesity significantly increases a woman’s risk of developing uterine cancer. Furthermore, obesity is a leading cause of heart disease, diabetes, depression, and many other health complications. A healthy diet (not necessarily “dieting”) and consistent exercise are the best methods of avoiding obesity.
- Progestin Hormone Therapy: Progestin, a synthetic form of progesterone, offsets high estrogen levels in the body and cause the endometrium to shed, resulting in reduced uterine cancer risk.