Cancer occurs when cells in an area of the body grow abnormally. The endometrium is the lining layer of the uterine cavity where most uterine cancers begin because of cancerous changes in the lining. In the most common type of uterine cancer, endometrial cancer, cells in the endometrial lining grow out of control, may invade the muscle of the uterus and sometimes spreads outside of the uterus (ovaries, lymph nodes, abdomen).
Uterine sarcomas are a type of uterine cancer in which malignant cells form in the muscle of the uterus (leiomyoscarcoma) or in the network of support cells in the uterine lining (stromal sarcomas and carcinosarcomas). Only about 5% of uterine cancers are uterine sarcomas, but they tend to have more aggressive clinical behavior and can spread quickly.
Risk factors for endometrial cancer include use of estrogen without progesterone, diabetes, hypertension, tamoxifen use and later age of menopause (after age 52). About 75% of women diagnosed with endometrial cancer have already gone through menopause.
However, one of the strongest and most common risk factors for the development of endometrial cancer is obesity. Women who are obese have higher circulating levels of estrogen, which increases their risk for endometrial cancer.
Heredity also plays a role in a small percentage of women with endometrial cancer. Some families have a high frequency of endometrial, colon and ovarian cancer. If you have relatives with endometrial, colon and ovarian cancer, you should see a genetics specialist. Learn more in the Risk Awareness pages on the website.
The most common warning sign for uterine cancer, including endometrial cancer, is abnormal vaginal bleeding. Recognition of this symptom often affords an opportunity for early diagnosis and treatment. In older women, any bleeding after menopause may be a symptom of endometrial cancer. Younger women are also at risk and should note irregular or heavy vaginal bleeding as this can be symptoms of endometrial cancer.
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