Endometrial Cancer Information

What is Endometrial Cancer?

Endometrial cancer forms in the lining of the uterus. The uterus is a hollow, pear-shaped organ. It is located in a woman's lower abdomen between the bladder and the rectum. Attached to either side of the top of the uterus are the fallopian tubes, which extend from the uterus to the ovaries.

The narrow, lower portion of the uterus is the cervix; the broad, middle part is the corpus; and the dome-shaped upper portion is the fundus. The walls of the uterus are made of two layers of tissue: the inner layer or lining (endometrium) and the outer layer or muscle (myometrium).

In women of childbearing age, the lining of the uterus grows and thickens each month so that it will be ready if pregnancy occurs. If a woman does not become pregnant, the thickened tissue and blood flow out of the body through the vagina; this flow is called menstruation.

What Is Cancer?

Cancer is a group of many different diseases that have some important things in common. They all affect cells, the body's basic unit of life. To understand cancer, it is helpful to know about normal cells and about what happens when cells become cancerous.

The body is made up of many types of cells. Normally, cells grow and divide to produce more cells only when the body needs them. This orderly process helps keep the body healthy. Sometimes cells keep dividing when new cells are not needed. A mass of extra tissue forms, and this mass is called a growth or tumor.

Tumors can be benign or malignant:

  • Benign tumors are not cancer. They can usually be removed and, in most cases, they do not come back. Cells from benign tumors do not spread to other parts of the body. Most important, benign tumors are rarely a threat to life.

    • Fibroids are common benign tumors of the uterine muscle. These tumors do not develop into cancer. Fibroids are found mainly in women in their forties. Women may have many fibroid tumors at the same time. In most cases, fibroids cause no symptoms and require no treatment, although they should be checked by a doctor. Depending on the size and location of the tumors, however, symptoms sometimes occur. These symptoms may include irregular bleeding, vaginal discharge, and frequent urination. When fibroids cause heavy bleeding or press against nearby organs and cause pain, surgery or other treatment may be recommended. When a woman reaches menopause, fibroids are likely to become smaller, and sometimes disappear.

    • Endometriosis is another benign condition that affects the uterus. It does not develop into cancer. Endometriosis is seen mostly in women in their thirties and forties, particularly in women who have never been pregnant. It occurs when endometrial tissue begins to grow on the outside of the uterus and on nearby organs. This condition may cause painful menstrual periods, abnormal vaginal bleeding, and sometimes loss of fertility (ability to produce children). Treatment options generally include hormone therapy and surgery.

    • Endometrial hyperplasia, also a benign condition, is an increase in the number of cells lining the uterus. Although it is not cancer, endometrial hyperplasia is considered a precancerous condition; in some cases, it may develop into cancer. Heavy menstrual periods, bleeding between periods, and bleeding after menopause are common symptoms of hyperplasia. The treatment is usually hysterectomy or hormone therapy with progesterone, depending on the extent of the condition and whether a woman wants to have children.

  • Malignant tumors are cancer. Cancer cells can invade and damage tissues and organs near the tumor. Also, cancer cells can break away from a malignant tumor and enter the bloodstream or lymphatic system. This is how cancer spreads from the original (primary) tumor to form new tumors in other parts of the body. The spread of cancer is called metastasis.

Most cancers are named for the part of the body in which they begin. The most common type of cancer of the uterus is endometrial cancer. This type of cancer is called endometrial or uterine cancer. The term endometrial cancer refers to cancer that begins in the endometrium. A different type of cancer, uterine sarcoma, develops in the uterine muscle. Cancer that begins in the cervix is also a different type of cancer.

As endometrial cancer grows, it may invade nearby organs. Endometrial cancer cells also may break away from the tumor and spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs, liver, and bones. When cancer spreads to another part of the body, the new cancer has the same kind of abnormal cells and the same name as the original (primary) cancer. For example, if endometrial cancer spreads to the lungs, the cancer cells in the new tumor are endometrial cancer cells. Cancer that has spread from the uterus to other parts of the body is called metastatic endometrial cancer; it is not lung cancer.

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