Adenocarcinoma of the endometrium/uterus
    
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Adenocarcinoma of the endometrium/uterus

Definition

Endometrial cancer is cancer that starts in the endometrium, the lining of the uterus (womb).

Alternative Names

Endometrial/uterine adenocarcinoma; Uterine cancer; Adenocarcinoma of the endometrium/uterus; Cancer - uterine; Cancer - endometrial; Uterine corpus cancer

Causes

Endometrial cancer is the most common type of uterine cancer. Although the exact cause of endometrial cancer is unknown, increased levels of estrogen appear to have a role. Estrogen helps stimulate the buildup of the epithelial lining of the uterus. Studies have shown that high levels of estrogen in animals results in endometrial hyperplasia and cancer.

Most cases of endometrial cancer occur between the ages of 60 and 70 years, but a few cases may occur before age 40.

The following increase your risk of endometrial cancer:

  • History of endometrial polyps or other benign growths of the uterine lining
  • Estrogen replacement therapy
  • Tamoxifen, a drug for breast cancer treatment
  • Diabetes
  • Never being pregnant (nulliparity)
  • Starting menstruation at an early age (before age 12)
  • Infertility (inability to become pregnant)
  • Starting menopause after age 50

Associated conditions include the following:

Symptoms

  • Abnormal uterine bleeding, abnormal menstrual periods
    • Bleeding between normal periods before menopause
    • Vaginal bleeding or spotting after menopause
  • Extremely long, heavy, or frequent episodes of vaginal bleeding after age 40
  • Lower abdominal pain or pelvic cramping
  • Thin white or clear vaginal discharge after menopause

Exams and Tests

A pelvic examination is frequently normal, especially in the early stages of disease. Changes in the size, shape, or consistency of the uterus or its surrounding, supporting structures may be seen when the disease is more advanced.

Tests used to diagnose endometrial cancer include:

  • Pap smear
  • Endometrial aspiration or biopsy
  • Dilation and curettage (D and C)

If cancer is found, other tests may be done to determine how widespread the cancer is and whether it has spread to other parts of the body. This is called staging.

Stages of endometrial cancer:

  1. The cancer is only in the uterus.
  2. The cancer is in the uterus and cervix.
  3. The cancer has spread outside of the uterus but not beyond the true pelvis area. Cancer may involve the lymph nodes in the pelvis or near the aorta (the major artery in the abdomen).
  4. The cancer has spread to the inner surface of the bowel, bladder, abdomen, or other organs.

Treatment

Treatment options involve surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

A hysterectomy may be performed in women with the early stage 1 disease. Removal of the tubes and ovaries (bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy) is also usually recommended.

Abdominal hysterectomy is recommended over vaginal hysterectomy. This type of hysterectomy allows the surgeon to look inside the abdominal area and remove tissue for a biopsy.

Surgery combined with radiation therapy is often used to treat women with stage 1 disease that could return and stage 2 disease. Chemotherapy may be considered in some cases, especially for those with stage 3 and 4 disease.

Support Groups

The stress of illness may be eased by joining a support group whose members share common experiences and problems. See cancer - support group.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Endometrial cancer is usually diagnosed at an early stage. The 1-year survival rate is about 94%.

The 5-year survival rate for endometrial cancer that has not spread is 96%. If the cancer has spread to distant organs, the 5-year survival rate drops to 25%.

Possible Complications

Complications may include anemia due to blood loss. A perforation (hole) of the uterus may occur during a D and C or endometrial biopsy.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you have abnormal vaginal bleeding or any other symptoms of endometrial cancer. This is particularly important if you have any associated risk factors or if you have not had routine pelvic exams.

Any of the following symptoms should be reported immediately to the doctor:

  • Bleeding or spotting after intercourse or douching
  • Bleeding lasting longer than 7 days
  • Periods that occur every 21 days or less
  • Bleeding or spotting after 6 months or more of no bleeding at all

Prevention

All women should have regular pelvic exams and Pap smears beginning at the onset of sexual activity (or at the age of 20 if not sexually active) to help detect signs of any abnormal development.

Women with any risk factors for endometrial cancer should be followed more closely by their doctors. Frequent pelvic examinations and screening tests, including a Pap smear and endometrial biopsy, should be done.

Women who are taking estrogen replacement therapy should also take these precautions.

American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts and Figures 2006. Atlanta, Ga: American Cancer Society; 2006.

Abeloff MD, Armitage JO, Niederhuber JE, Kastan MB, McKena WG. Clinical Oncology. 3rd ed. Orlando, Fl: Churchill Livingstone; 2004:2273-2304.

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