While most women are aware of cervical cancer, much fewer are aware of uterine cancer – even though it is not an uncommon condition affecting women.
Common cancers among women include breast cancer, cervical cancer, ovarian cancer, and uterine cancer. Although breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed form of cancer in women, the fatality rate is lower than that from cervical cancer. Most cervical cancer deaths are preventable if the cancer is discovered early enough. Unfortunately, it often isn’t, commonly because most women feel nervous and embarrassed about having a pelvic examination. The incidence rate for cervical cancer tends to be lower in the U.S. and European countries because many people there understand how to prevent the condition and undergo a cervical screening test. However, the incidence rate for uterine cancer remains relatively high for women across the world.
Most people think that uterine cancer and cervical cancer are the same, but they actually occur in different parts of the reproductive system. Further confusion may be due to a common misunderstanding regarding the Pap test. Many women mistakenly believe that the Pap test covers all of the reproductive system. In fact, it only screens a part of the system and does not detect uterine cancer.
The exact causes of uterine cancer are unknown. However, there are some factors that increase the risk. First of all, the condition is associated with female hormones in the body. It can occur in women who are childless or those who have only one or two children. The condition may also develop in women who have menstruated for longer than average, or in women who have fluctuations in the balance of their hormones, such as irregular ovulation patterns and irregular menstruation. Other factors that increase the risk of uterine cancer include diabetes, obesity, and any form of hormone use.
Uterine cancer is most common in women who are in premenopause (between 40-50 years), with the above risk factors, along with an abnormal menstrual pattern; and in postmenopause, with postmenopausal bleeding. One reason why this indicator of uterine cancer often goes undetected is because some women mistakenly think that it is a sign and symptom of the perimenopause period.
Irregular menstruation and postmenopausal bleeding are the only observable symptoms of uterine cancer, or endometrial cancer. However, it does not necessarily mean that all women with irregular menstruation have uterine cancer. It is important to see a gynecologist who can diagnose the irregular menstruation and determine the cause.
Although no screening test is available for uterine cancer, the gynecologist may recommend a transvaginal ultrasound to search for abnormalities, or use a scope to examine the inside of the uterus and the endometrium. If uterine cancer is suspected from these preliminary tests, a sample of cells will be removed from inside the uterine lining for laboratory analysis.
If it is detected early enough, uterine cancer can be treated by surgery. Surgery for early-stage uterine cancer is less complicated than for cervical cancer and has a 90% cure rate. When possible, the minimally invasive technique can be used to shorten the healing time and help patients get back to their daily activities more quickly.
Since uterine cancer can be treated, if it is detected early enough, it is very important that women experiencing irregular menstruation see a gynecologist for timely diagnosis and treatment, no matter their age.
By Dr. Wisit Supakarapongkul, Gynecologic Oncologist, Women’s Center, Bumrungrad Hospital
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