What to know about Uterine Cancer
Uterine Cancer refers to cancer that affects the uterus when malignant or cancerous cells grow in the inner lining of the uterus. This type of cancer is also referred to as Endometrial cancer.
The uterus is a reproductive organ in women whose main aim is to nourish a foetus which is connected to the fallopian tubes, vagina and cervix. It is made up of three layers; the endometrium which is the inner lining, the myometrium (the middle muscular layer) and the perimetrium which is the outer layer.
Symptoms of Uterine Cancer
Most women see a doctor when they start seeing abnormal vaginal bleeding, which is the most common symptom of uterine cancer. Even though not all vaginal bleeding indicates that a woman has uterine cancer, it is advisable to see a doctor if you get this symptom because it might also be as a result of other medical issues, such as fibroids. Apart from abnormal vaginal bleeding, these are the other symptoms that could indicate the presence of cancer in the uterus:
- Pelvic pain
- Watery vaginal discharge
- Pain during sex
- Difficulty or pain during urination
- Unintentional loss of weight
Having any of the above symptoms does not necessarily mean that you have uterine cancer, but visiting a doctor to have yourself checked is important.
Causes of Uterine Cancer
Like most cancers, uterine cancer has no exact cause that is known, however it is thought that most women who develop this cancer is due to a hormone imbalance; having more estrogen levels than progesterone in the body. There are some risk factors however, that are said to increase the risk of a woman getting uterine cancer and they can include:
- Age: Most uterine cancer sufferers are women in their 50s or older. As a woman grows older, her risk of getting endometrial cancer increases. This does not necessarily mean that women younger than 50 cannot develop endometrial cancer, but the chances are lower.
- Obesity: Women who are overweight or obese have a higher risk of getting uterine cancer than those who are not. This is because fat tissues produce more estrogen hormone, especially after menopause.
- Increased number of menstrual cycles: Women who have had more menstrual cycles in their lifetime have an increased risk of getting this type of cancer.
- Ovarian tumours: There are specific ovarian tumours such as granulosa cell tumour, which lead to an uncontrolled estrogen release which in turn can lead to hormone imbalances.
- Exposure to radiation: Being exposed to radiation especially when getting treatment for other cancers in the pelvic area, can also increase a woman’s risk of getting endometrial cancer.
- Diabetes: Women who have diabetes have a higher risk of developing endometrial cancer because their insulin levels raise and in turn raises their estrogen hormone levels in the body.
- Genetic factor: Families with the Lynch syndrome for instance, have a higher risk of developing cancer. This is a type of cancer syndrome that is inherited and therefore a woman who have this syndrome has a higher risk of developing uterine cancer.
- Estrogen replacement therapy: This therapy is done to increase the esrogen hormone in the body, however without adding the progesterone level, this can increase a woman’s risk of developing uterine cancer.
Diagnosis of Uterine Cancer
To diagnose uterine cancer, the following could be undertaken:
- Physical exam: Diagnosis of uterine cancer begins with a physical exam by a doctor to check the pelvic area; the vagina, bladder, ovaries and the womb. If the doctor suspects any abnormalities during the examination, he or she might refer you to a gynaecologist who will do other tests.
- Endometrial Biopsy: A small part of the uterus lining is removed and using a tube that is inserted into the uterus through the cervix. The sample is looked at under a microscope to check for any cancer cells.
- Dilation and Curettage (D&C): In this test, the cervix is first dilated then the curette which is a spoon-shaped instrument is used to remove tissue from the uterus and checked under a microscope for any signs of the Uterine Cancer.
- Hysteroscopy: A doctor uses a thin telescope to look into the uterus and take a sample which they can then look at under a microscope.
- Imaging tests:
- Transvaginal ultrasound exam: High-energy sound waves are bounced off internal organs making echoes that form the images of the tissues helping the gynae to identify any tumors.
- CT scan: This is a computerised tomography through which a series of x-rays make up a detailed image of the body to see whether the cancer has spread to other parts.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): Though this test has the same purpose as CT scan in Uterine Cancer, it takes more detailed images than a CT scan.
- Blood Test: This is done to check for any tumour makers in the blood which are released by the cancerous tumours. However, the presence of this chemicals might not necessarily mean that you have Uterine Cancer and not every woman with this cancer has the tumour makers chemical in her blood.
The treatment depends on what stage the cancer is on and whether a woman has been through menopause or not.
- Surgery: Surgery is done to remove the tumour. It can be of two types:
1. Lympadectomy: This surgery is done to remove the lymph nodes near the tumour to help prevent the spread of the cancer to other parts of the body.
2. Hysterectomy: This surgery is performed when the cancer has spread to the surrounding organs and tissues. It can be done to remove the uterus and cervix through simple hysterectomy or to remove the uterus, cervix, the upper part of the vagina and nearby tissues through radical hysterectomy. If one has undergone menopause, hysterectomy is one of the surgeries done to remove the entire womb, ovaries and the fallopian tubes.
- Chemotherapy: Using drugs to fight the cancer cells. It may have different side effects for different people like; hair loss, vomiting, nausea and fatigue.
- Radiation Therapy: This treatment option on the other hand uses high-energy beams to destroy the cancer cells. It may however, damage normal cells around the affected area. This can be done in two ways:
1. Internal Radiotherapy that involves passing radiation treatment through a plastic tube that is inserted into the womb.
2. External Radiotherapy uses a machine to pass radiation beams to the pelvis.
- Hormone Therapy: This treatment eliminates hormones or blocks them from reaching the cancer cells and helping them grow. It is used in the advanced stage to help shrink the cancer tumour. Its side effects include; mild cramps, nausea and gaining weight.
- Biotherapy/ Immunotherapy: It involves using drugs to boost the immune system of the victim and help the body fight the cancer cells.
- Target Therapy: Uses drugs to kill cancer cells in the uterus without affecting the normal cells.
Prevention of Uterine Cancer
Educating yourself on how to reduce your risks and seeing your doctor and having a discussion on your risk factors is the first step to preventing uterine cancer. These are the ways to prevent or reduce your risk of developing endometrial cancer. They include:
- Not smoking
- Avoiding excessive use of alcohol
- Taking birth control pills and using Intrauterine device (IUD) for birth control
- Maintaining a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetable and less meat
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Exercising regularly
- Good disease management especially for diabetes; monitoring glucose level regularly
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