Womb Cancer – Uterine Cancer

Uterine Cancer Causes

The exact cause of uterine cancer isn’t known. However, certain factors may increase a woman’s risk, in particular being exposed to higher levels of the female hormone oestrogen, especially if levels of progesterone (which may protect against uterine cancer) are low.

Other factors linked to uterine cancer include:

  • being overweight (fatty tissue converts other hormones into oestrogen)
  • how many times you’ve been pregnant (oestrogen levels are low in pregnancy)
  • the pattern of your periods (starting periods early, frequent periods or a late menopause all increase oestrogen exposure)

Treatment with tamoxifen – a drug sometimes used to treat breast cancer and infertility – can slightly increase the risk of uterine cancer as it has the same effect as oestrogen on the womb, as can long-term use of HRT, particularly if oestrogen is the only hormone used. Most modern contraceptive pills, however, reduce the risk.

A condition called endometrial hyperplasia, where the lining of the womb is abnormally thick, also increases the risk, as does a family history of certain cancers including those of the bowel, breast, womb and ovary.

Uterine Cancer Symptoms

The most common symptom is abnormal vaginal bleeding, either after the menopause or between periods. Occasionally, women complain of a vaginal discharge, lower abdominal pain or pain during sex.

In more advanced stages of the disease, tiredness, nausea, loss of appetite, weight loss, constipation or pain in the back or legs may occur.

Uterine Cancer  Diagnosis

Your doctor may carry out an internal examination to check for abnormalities in the womb. If he or she is concerned about uterine cancer you may be referred to a specialist who’ll carry out further tests including a biopsy of the womb tissue, an ultrasound scan and blood tests to look for chemical clues of the tumour.

Screening isn’t routine, although women known to be at high risk may be offered regular check-ups with ultrasound scans and biopsies of the uterus.

Uterine Cancer Treatment

Important factors in deciding treatment include how far the cancer has spread, the type of cancer and how aggressive it is, and how healthy the woman is. In most cases, surgery to remove the womb and ovaries (which provide oestrogen that ‘fuels’ the cancer) is recommended. For cancer in the early stages this may be all that is needed, but radiotherapy, hormone treatments and chemotherapy may also be used.

Around 75 per cent of those diagnosed with uterine cancer are still alive after five years and many of these are completely cured.

This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Trisha Macnair in August 2005.
First published in November 1997.