Womb cancer (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). It's part of the female reproductive system and is where your baby develops if you get pregnant. The lining of the womb is called the endometrium or endometrial layer.
Womb cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women in the UK – about 7,800 women are diagnosed each year. Most women who get womb cancer are over 50.
Womb cancer can sometimes invade surrounding tissue or spread through your bloodstream or lymphatic system to other parts of your body. Your lymphatic system is the tissues and organs that produce and store cells that fight infection and disease. A cancer that has spread is known as a 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 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 include:
If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP.
Some women get a lump in their pelvis. These lumps are often benign (not cancerous), but some may be cancerous. Ask your doctor for more information.
The exact reasons why you may develop womb cancer aren't fully understood at present. However, you may be more likely to develop it if you have too much of the hormone oestrogen in your body (in relation to progesterone).
You're also more likely to develop womb cancer if you:
The uterine sarcoma type of womb cancer is more common in African-American women, and in women who have previously had radiotherapy to their pelvic area.
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history.
Your GP may check inside your vagina and do a smear test. This is a test to examine the cells in the neck of your womb (cervix).
If your GP suspects you have womb cancer, he or she will refer you to a gynaecologist (a doctor who specialises in women's reproductive health).
You may have a number of further tests (arranged by your GP or your specialist) which may include the following.
In this test, a radiographer (a health professional trained to perform imaging procedures) will place a small ultrasound probe 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 womb cancer, you may need to have other tests to find out how advanced it is. This process, known as staging, takes into account whether the cancer has spread and how big it is. Your doctor will usually advise you to have scans, such as an ultrasound, MRI or CT scan. These will check different areas of your womb, vagina and lymphatic system.
If womb cancer is diagnosed early, treatment can be very effective.
Your treatment for womb cancer will depend on the type of womb cancer you have. It will also depend on how fast it's growing, how far it has spread, your age and your general health. 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 will probably suggest a hysterectomy – an operation to remove your womb.
If you have a total hysterectomy, your surgeon will usually remove your womb, fallopian tubes and both ovaries. Your surgeon may also remove or examine the lymph nodes around your womb. As well as removing any cancerous cells, checking the lymph nodes can help your doctor to decide if you need other treatment.
The aim of surgery is to remove all traces of the cancer. If your cancer hasn’t spread outside your womb, a hysterectomy is often successful at treating it.
You might be able to have keyhole surgery, which may mean you recover from the operation more quickly. Ask your surgeon for more information.
Non-surgical treatments include the following. You may have these with, or instead of, surgery.
After treatment for womb cancer, you will have regular check-ups with your doctor to see if the cancer has returned. If the cancer has already spread, you can get support from specialist cancer doctors and nurses as well as treatment for any symptoms. This is called palliative care.
Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Information Team, June 2014.
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