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Endometrial cancer is cancer that develops in the endometrium, the lining of the uterus. This type of cancer most often occurs in women between the ages of 60 and 70, but it can affect younger women. It is the most prevalent form of uterine cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, 7,780 women in the United States died from endometrial cancer in 2009.
Researchers are unaware of the exact cause of endometrial cancer, but excessive estrogen might play a role. A woman has a greater risk of developing this type of cancer if she is more than 50 years old, has undergone hormone replacement therapy, has never been pregnant or has a history of polyps in her endometrium. Other risk factors include obesity, infertility and diabetes. Women who began menstruating before the age of 12 or started menopause after the age of 50 also are at a greater risk. Caucasian women are more likely to develop this type of cancer than women of African descent are.
Symptoms of endometrial cancer include abnormal menstrual periods, other bleeding between periods and uterine cramping or pain in the lower abdomen. For women who have gone through menopause, clear or white vaginal discharge might be a symptom. Other symptoms include pelvic pain, pain during intercourse and pain during urination.
Typically, endometrial cancer is first detected during a pelvic exam. A doctor might then recommend a transvaginal ultrasound to look for abnormalities and to rule out other conditions. If the ultrasound identifies abnormal tissue, the doctor could perform an endometrial biopsy to remove and analyze the tissue. A doctor might perform a dilation and curettage if he or she needs to remove additional tissue. Further testing is required to determine the stage of cancer if a woman is diagnosed.
The most common treatment for endometrial cancer is surgery to remove the affected tissues and organs. A doctor might recommend a hysterectomy to remove the uterus and possibly the surrounding areas, such as the fallopian tubes or ovaries. Lymph nodes also could be removed. If the cancer has metastasized, or spread, the doctor might recommend radiation, hormone therapy or chemotherapy.
The prognosis for women with endometrial cancer varies, depending on the severity. It typically is diagnosed at an early stage, and the survival rate is high if the cancer does not spread to other parts of the body. For women whose cancer does metastasize, the survival rate is much lower.
Women can improve their chances of not developing endometrial cancer by maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly. Using oral contraceptives also lowers a woman’s risk. This benefit to oral contraceptives lasts for as long as 10 years after a woman stops taking them.