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  • What is cancer of the uterus?

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    What is cancer of the uterus?

    The uterus, or womb, is part of the female reproductive system, which also includes the ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix (neck of the uterus) and vagina (birth canal).

    The uterus is about the size and shape of a hollow, upside-down pear. It sits low in the abdomen between the bladder and rectum, and is held there by muscle. It is joined to the vagina by the cervix, which is the neck of the uterus. The uterus is where a foetus grows during pregnancy. It is made up of two layers:

    Myometriumthe outer layer of muscle tissue. This makes up most of the uterus.

    Endometriumthe inner layer or lining. In a woman of childbearing age, the hormone oestrogen causes the endometrium to become thicker each month to prepare for pregnancy.

    Each month, the ovaries release an egg (ovum) in a process called ovulation. The egg travels down the fallopian tube into the uterus. If the egg is fertilised by a sperm, it will implant itself into the lining of the uterus and grow into a baby. If the egg is not fertilised by a sperm, the lining is shed and flows out of the body through the vagina. This flow is known as a woman’s period (menstruation).

    The ovaries produce the hormones oestrogen and progesterone that cause ovulation and menstruation. Menopause occurs when the levels of these hormones decrease. A menopausal woman’s periods stop and she is not able to become pregnant. The uterus becomes smaller, and the endometrium becomes thinner and inactive.

    What are the symptoms?

    The most common symptom of cancer of the uterus is unusual vaginal bleeding, particularly any bleeding after menopause. Some women experience an offensive smelling, watery discharge. Other symptoms include abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, or difficulty urinating. These symptoms can happen for other reasons, but it is best to check with your doctor.

    How common is cancer of the uterus?

    Each year, about 2,500 Australian women are diagnosed with uterine cancer. The majority of these women are over 50. It is the fifth most common cancer diagnosed in Australian women and the most commonly diagnosed gynaecological cancer in Australia. One in 60 women is likely to be diagnosed with uterine cancer by the age of 75.

    What are the different types of cancer of the uterus?

    Uterine cancer can be either endometrial cancer (around 95 per cent of all uterine cancers) or the less common uterine sarcoma (around four per cent of all uterine cancers). 

    What are the risk factors?

    The exact cause of cancer of the uterus is unknown, but some factors seem to increase a woman’s risk:

    • being over 50
    • being postmenopausal
    • having endometrial hyperplasia, a benign condition in which the endometrium thickens because of too much oestrogen
    • never having children or being infertile
    • starting periods early (before age 12)
    • reaching menopause late (after age 55)
    • having high blood pressure (hypertension)
    • having diabetes
    • being overweight or obese
    • a family history of ovarian, uterine, breast or bowel cancer
    • having an inherited genetic condition such as Lynch syndrome or Cowden syndrome
    • previous ovarian tumours or polycystic ovary syndrome
    • taking oestrogen hormone replacement without progesterone
    • previous pelvic radiation for cancer
    • taking tamoxifen, an anti-oestrogen drug used to treat breast cancer (talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits if you are concerned).

    Many women who have risk factors don’t develop cancer of the uterus, and some women who get cancer have no risk factors.

    This website page was last reviewed and updated July 2018.

    Information reviewed by: A/Prof Sam Saidi, Senior Staff Specialist, Gynaecological Oncology Group, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, NSW; Lauren Atkins, Accredited Practising Dietitian, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Scott Carruthers, Radiation Oncologist, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Prof Michael Friedlander, Medical Oncologist, Royal Hospital for Women Sydney, NSW; Roslyn McAullay, Social Worker, Women and Newborn Health Service, King Edward Memorial Hospital, WA; Anne Mellon, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Hunter New England Centre for Gynaecological Cancer, NSW; Christine O’Bryan, Consumer; Deb Roffe, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Department of Physiotherapy, King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women, WA.

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