Understanding Endometrial Cancer

Endometrial cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cells that make up the lining of the uterus. Since the endometrium is part of the uterus, endometrial cancer is often used interchangeably with uterine cancer, but there are differences in the origin of these two types of cancers. Malignant tumors in the uterus may originate in endometrial cells, which are referred to as 'carcinomas.' However, malignant tumors may begin in the connective tissue or muscles of the uterus, which are termed 'sarcomas.'

Endometrial adenocarcinoma (or uterine adenocarcinoma) is a general term used for cancer of the endometrium. Depending on the exact type of cell that has become cancerous, a different term may be used that describes the affected cell type. Most instances of cancer are from cells which help make the glands in the uterine lining. This type of endometrial cancer has a better prognosis, if diagnosed early.

Rarer forms of endometrial cancer occur in other types of cells within the lining, such as squamous, secretory, mucinous, and glassy cells. Unfortunately, when these types of endometrial cells become cancerous, they grow rapidly and a diagnosis is usually made at later stages.

The most common sign of endometrial cancer is vaginal bleeding in postmenopausal women. Premenopausal women may experience irregular bleeding, such as bleeding between periods. They may have abnormally heavy periods due to an increase in menstrual flow or prolonged menstruation.

If cancer is suspected, an endometrial biopsy is usually performed. During the procedure, which may occur in a physician's office or at an outpatient facility, the cervix is dilated to collect samples of the endometrium. Once the samples are collected, they are sent to a laboratory to be viewed under magnification. A pathologist views the samples and determines if the tissue is normal, or shows any degree of abnormality. If abnormalities are discovered, additional samples may need to be collected to determine the exact type of abnormality and severity.

For women diagnosed with endometrial cancer, there are a variety of treatment options. The most common treatment is removal of the uterus and radiation therapy to destroy any remaining cancer cells. In advanced stages of cancer, chemotherapy may be needed as a more aggressive form of treatment. Women with types of endometrial cancer that are fueled by hormones may be prescribed a type of hormone therapy to reduce the possibility of recurrences.