Womb cancer, also called uterine cancer, is caused by an abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells in your womb (uterus).
Your womb is a pear-shaped, muscular organ in your lower abdomen (tummy). Its lining is called the endometrium or endometrial layer. As your menstrual cycle progresses, the endometrium thickens and becomes full of blood vessels. If an egg is fertilised, it implants in the endometrial layer where it receives nourishment and begins to develop into a baby. If you don't become pregnant, you have a period – the thickened endometrial layer is shed and your menstrual cycle begins again.
Womb cancer develops in the lining or the wall of your womb. It’s the fourth most common cancer in women in the UK – about 7,800 women are diagnosed each year. Womb cancer is most common in women over the age of 50.
Sometimes, the cancer starts in your womb and invades surrounding tissue or spreads through your bloodstream or lymph system to other parts of your body. This spread of cancer is known as metastasis.
There are two main types of womb cancer.
The most common symptom of womb cancer is bleeding from your vagina, particularly if you have been through the menopause. If you haven't yet been through the menopause, you may find that you have unusually heavy bleeding during your period or bleeding between periods.
Other, less common, symptoms of womb cancer may include:
These symptoms may be caused by problems other than womb cancer. If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP for advice.
Some women can get a lump in the inner lining of their womb called an endometrial polyp. These lumps are often benign (not cancerous), but some may contain cancer cells. Ask your doctor for more information.
The exact reasons why you may develop womb cancer aren't fully understood at present. However, it's thought that if you have too much of the hormone oestrogen in your body in relation to progesterone, you may be more at risk of developing the condition.
Other factors that may increase your risk of developing womb cancer include:
The type of womb cancer known as uterine sarcoma is more common in African-Caribbean women and in women who have previously had radiotherapy to their pelvic area.
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you, which may include an internal pelvic examination. He or she may also ask you about your medical history.
If your GP suspects that you have womb cancer, he or she will refer you to a specialist clinic or to a gynaecologist (a doctor who specialises in women's reproductive health). You may also have a number of tests to diagnose womb cancer. Some of these are listed below.
In this test, a small ultrasound probe is gently placed into your vagina. Ultrasound uses sound waves to produce an image of the inside of your womb. This will measure the thickness of your womb lining, which can help to diagnose womb cancer.
A biopsy is a small sample of tissue. This will be sent to a laboratory for testing to determine the type of cells and if these are benign or cancerous. There are several different ways to take a biopsy.
CA125 is a chemical produced by cancer cells usually in ovarian cancer, but sometimes in womb cancer. Blood tests can check if CA125 is in your bloodstream.
If you're found to have cancer, you may need to have other tests to assess if the cancer has spread. The process of finding out the stage of a cancer is called staging.
Womb cancer often causes symptoms quite early. If it's diagnosed early, treatment can be very effective.
Your treatment for womb cancer will depend on the type of womb cancer you have, the grade of cancer (how fast it's growing), how far it has spread, your age and your general health. Endometrial cancer and uterine sarcoma are treated in similar ways. Your doctor will discuss your treatment options with you.
For most women with womb cancer, the first and most common treatment is surgery. Your doctor is likely to suggest a hysterectomy – an operation to remove your womb.
If you have a total hysterectomy, your womb, fallopian tubes and both ovaries are usually removed. Your surgeon may also remove or examine the lymph nodes around your womb. Lymph nodes are glands throughout your body that are part of your immune system. As well as removing any cancerous cells, checking lymph nodes can help your doctor to decide whether you need other treatment.
The aim of surgery is to remove all traces of the cancer. If your cancer is contained within your womb, then a hysterectomy is often successful at treating womb cancer.
Non-surgical treatments include the following.
After treatment for womb cancer, you will have regular check-ups with your doctor to see if there is any evidence that the cancer has returned. If the cancer has already spread, you will regularly see doctors or specialist nurses to get treatment for any symptoms you might have.
Being diagnosed with cancer can be distressing for you and your family. An important part of cancer treatment is having support to deal with the emotional aspects as well as the physical symptoms. Specialist cancer doctors and nurses are experts in providing the support you need, and may also visit you at home. If you have more advanced cancer, further support is available to you in hospices or at home, and this is called palliative care.
Produced by Stephanie Hughes, Bupa Health Information Team, July 2012.
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This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.