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What is Endometrial Cancer?
Endometrial cancer is a cancer that starts in the endometrium, the inner lining of the uterus (womb).
About the uterus and endometrium
The uterus is a hollow organ, about the size and shape of a medium-sized pear. The uterus is where a fetus grows and develops when a woman is pregnant. The uterus has 2 main parts (see picture above). The lower end of the uterus extends into the vagina and is called the cervix. The upper part of the uterus is called the body and is also known as the corpus. (Corpus is the Latin word for body.)
The body of the uterus has 2 layers. The inner layer or lining is called the endometrium. The outer layer of muscle is known as the myometrium. This thick layer of muscle is needed to push the baby out during birth. The tissue coating the outside of the uterus is the serosa.
Hormone changes during a woman's menstrual cycle cause the endometrium to change. During the early part of the cycle, before the ovaries release an egg (ovulation), the ovaries produce estrogens. The hormone called estrogencauses the endometrium to thicken so that it could nourish an embryo if pregnancy occurs. If there is no pregnancy, estrogen is produced in lower amounts and more of the hormone called progesterone is made after ovulation. This causes the innermost layer of the lining to prepare to shed. By the end of the cycle, the endometrial lining is shed from the uterus and becomes the menstrual flow (period). This cycle repeats throughout a woman's life until menopause (change of life).
Cancers of the uterus and endometrium
Nearly all cancers of the uterus start in the endometrium and are called endometrial carcinomas. Cancers can also start in the muscle layer or supporting connective tissue of the uterus. These cancers belong to the group of cancers called sarcomas.
Carcinomas: Endometrial cancers start in the cells that line the uterus and belong to the group of cancers called carcinomas. Most endometrial carcinomas are cancers of the cells that form glands in the endometrium. These are calledadenocarcinomas. The most common type of endometrial cancer is called endometrioid adenocarcinoma. Other less common types of endometrial carcinomas include squamous cell and undifferentiated.
Over 80% of endometrial cancers are typical adenocarcinomas -- also known as endometrioid. Endometrioid cancers are made up of cells in glands that look much like the normal uterine lining (endometrium). Some of these cancers contain squamous cells (squamous cells are flat, thin cells that can be found on the outer surface of the cervix), as well as glandular cells. A cancer with both types of cells is called an adenocarcinoma with squamous differentiation.If, under the microscope, the glandular cells look cancerous but the squamous cells don't, the tumor may be called anadenoacanthoma. If both the squamous cells and the glandular cells look malignant (cancerous), these tumors can be called adenosquamous carcinomas. There are other types of endometrioid cancers, such as secretory carcinoma,ciliated carcinoma, and mucinous adenocarcinoma.
The grade of an endometrioid cancer is based on how much the cancer forms glands that look similar to the glands found in normal, healthy endometrium. In lower-grade cancers, more of the cancerous tissue forms glands. In higher-grade cancers, more of the cancer cells are arranged in a haphazard or disorganized way and do not form glands.
Grade 1 tumors have 95% or more of the cancerous tissue forming glands.
Grade 2 tumors have between 50% and 94% of the cancerous tissue forming glands.
Grade 3 tumors have less than half of the cancerous tissue forming glands. Grade 3 cancers are called "high-grade." They tend to be aggressive and have a poorer outlook than lower grade cancers (grades 1 and 2).
Some less common forms of endometrial adenocarcinoma are clear-cell carcinoma, serous carcinoma (also calledpapillary serous carcinoma), and poorly differentiated carcinoma. These cancers are more aggressive than most endometrial cancers. They tend to grow quickly and often have spread outside the uterus at the time of diagnosis.
Doctors sometimes divide endometrial carcinoma into 2 types based on their outlook and underlying causes. “Type 1” cancers are thought to be caused by excess estrogen. They are usually not very aggressive and are slow to spread to other tissues. Grades 1 and 2 endometrioid cancers are “type 1” endometrial cancers. A small number of endometrial cancers are “type 2.” Experts aren't sure what causes type 2 cancers, but they don't seem to be caused by too much estrogen. Serous carcinoma, clear-cell carcinoma, poorly differentiated carcinoma, and grade 3 endometrioid carcinoma are all type 2 cancers. These cancers don't look at all like normal endometrium and so are called "poorly differentiated" or “high-grade.” Because type 2 cancers are more likely to grow and spread outside of the uterus, they have a poorer outlook (than type 1 cancers). Doctors tend to treat these cancers more aggressively.
Uterine carcinosarcoma (CS) is another cancer that starts in the endometrium and is included in this document. When looked at under the microscope, this cancer has features of both endometrial carcinoma and sarcoma. In the past, CS was considered a type of uterine sarcoma, but many doctors now believe that CS may actually be a form of poorly differentiated carcinoma.
Uterine CS has many things in common with type 2 endometrial carcinoma. For example, they have similar risk factors. These cancers are also similar in how they spread and are treated. CSs are also known as malignant mixed mesodermal tumors or malignant mixed mullerian tumors (MMMTs). They make up about 4% of uterine cancers.
Uterine sarcomas: Cancer can also start in the supporting connective tissue (stroma) and muscle cells of the uterus. These cancers are called uterine sarcomas. They are much less common than endometrial carcinoma. These include:
Stromal sarcomas, which start in the supporting connective tissue of the endometrium
Leiomyosarcomas, which start in the myometrium or muscular wall of the uterus
These cancers are not discussed in this document because their treatment and prognosis (outlook) are different from the most common cancers of the endometrium. T
Cervical cancers: Cancers that come from the cervix and then spread to the body of the uterus are different from cancers that start in the body of the uterus.
Risk factors for endometrial cancer
A risk factor is anything that changes your chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. For example, unprotected exposure to strong sunlight is a risk factor for skin cancer. Smoking is a risk factor for many cancers.
There are different kinds of risk factors. Some, such as your age or race, can't be changed. Others are related to personal choices such as smoking, exercising, body weight, drinking, or diet. Some factors influence risk more than others. Although certain factors increase a woman's risk for developing endometrial cancer, they do not always cause the disease. Many women with one or more risk factors never develop endometrial cancer. Some women with endometrial cancer do not have any known risk factors. Even if a woman with endometrial cancer has one or more risk factors, there is no way to know which, if any, of these factors was responsible for her cancer.
Hormone factors: A woman's hormone balance plays a part in the development of most endometrial cancers. Many of the risk factors for endometrial cancer affect estrogen levels. Before menopause, the ovaries are the main source of the 2 main types of female hormones -- estrogen and progesterone. The balance between these hormones changes during a woman's menstrual cycle each month. This produces a woman's monthly periods and keeps the endometrium healthy. A shift in the balance of these two hormones toward more estrogen increases a woman's risk for developing endometrial cancer. After menopause, the ovaries stop making these hormones, but a small amount of estrogen is still made naturally in fat tissue. This estrogen has a bigger impact after menopause than it does before menopause. Female hormones are also available to take (as a medicine) in birth control pills to prevent pregnancy and as hormone therapy to treat symptoms of menopause.
Estrogen therapy: Treating the symptoms of menopause with estrogen is known as estrogen therapy or menopausal hormone therapy. Estrogen is available in many different forms such as pills, skin patches, creams, shots, and vaginal rings to treat the symptoms of menopause. Estrogen treatment can reduce hot flashes, improve vaginal dryness, and help prevent the weakening of the bones (osteoporosis) that can occur with menopause. Doctors have found, however, that using estrogen alone (without progesterone) can lead to endometrial cancer in women who still have a uterus. Progesterone-like drugs must be given along with estrogen to reduce the increased risk of endometrial cancer. This approach is called combination hormone therapy. Studies have shown that estrogen therapy increases a woman's chance of developing serious blood clots and heart disease.
Giving progesterone along with estrogen does not cause endometrial cancer, but it does still have risks. Studies have shown that this combination increases a woman's chance of developing breast cancer and also increases the risk of serious blood clots.
If you are taking (or plan to take) hormones after menopause, it is important for you to discuss the potential risks (including cancer, blood clots, heart attacks, and stroke) with your doctor. Like any other medicine, hormones should be used only at the lowest dose that is needed and for the shortest possible time to control symptoms. You should also have at yearly follow-up pelvic exams. If you have any abnormal bleeding or discharge from the vagina you should see your doctor or other health care provider right away.
Birth control pills: Using birth control pills (oral contraceptives) lowers the risk of endometrial cancer. The risk is lowest in women who take the pill for a long time, and this protection continues for at least ten years after a woman stops taking this form of birth control. However, it is important to look at all of the risks and benefits when choosing a contraceptive method; endometrial cancer risk is only one factor to be considered. It's a good idea to discuss the pros and cons of different types of birth control with your doctor.
Total number of menstrual cycles: Having more menstrual cycles during a woman's lifetime raises her risk of endometrial cancer. Starting menstrual periods (menarche) before age 12 and/or going through menopause later in life raises the risk. Starting periods early is less a risk factor for women with early menopause. Likewise, late menopause may not lead to a higher risk in women whose periods began later in their teens.
Pregnancy: The hormonal balance shifts toward more progesterone during pregnancy. So having many pregnancies protects against endometrial cancer. Women who have never been pregnant have a higher risk, especially if they were also infertile (unable to become pregnant).
Obesity: Most of a woman's estrogen is produced by her ovaries, but fat tissue can change some other hormones into estrogens. Having more fat tissue can increase a woman's estrogen levels, which increases her endometrial cancer risk. In comparison with women who maintain a healthy weight, endometrial cancer is twice as common in overweight women, and more than three times as common in obese women.
Tamoxifen: Tamoxifen is a drug that is used to prevent and treat breast cancer. Tamoxifen acts as an anti-estrogen in breast tissue, but it acts like an estrogen in the uterus. It can cause the uterine lining to grow, which increases the risk of endometrial cancer.
The risk of developing endometrial cancer from tamoxifen is small -- about 1 in 500. Women taking tamoxifen must balance this risk against the value of this drug in treating and preventing breast cancer. This is an issue women may want to discuss with their doctors. If you are taking tamoxifen, you should have yearly gynecologic exams and should be sure to report any abnormal bleeding, as this could be a sign of endometrial cancer.
Ovarian tumors: A certain type of ovarian tumor, the granulosa-theca cell tumor, often makes estrogen. Estrogen release by one of these tumors is not controlled the way hormone release from the ovaries is, which can sometimes lead to high estrogen levels. The resulting hormone imbalance can stimulate the endometrium and even lead to endometrial cancer. In fact, sometimes vaginal bleeding from endometrial cancer is the first symptom of one of these tumors.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome: Women with a condition called polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) have abnormal hormone levels, such as higher androgen (male hormones) and estrogen levels and lower levels of progesterone. The increase in estrogen relative to progesterone can increase a woman's chance of getting endometrial cancer.
Use of an intrauterine device: Women who used an intrauterine device (IUD) for birth control seem to have a lower risk of getting endometrial cancer. Information about this protective effect is limited to IUDs that do not contain hormones. Researchers have not yet studied whether newer types of IUDs that release progesterone have any effect of endometrial cancer risk. However, these IUDs are sometimes used to treat pre-cancers and early endometrial cancers in women who wish to preserve child-bearing ability.
Age: The risk of endometrial cancer increases as a woman gets older.
Diet and exercise: A high-fat diet can increase the risk of several cancers, including endometrial cancer. Because fatty foods are also high-calorie foods, a high fat diet can lead to obesity, which is a well-known endometrial cancer risk factor. Many scientists think this is the main way in which a high fat diet raises endometrial cancer risk. Some scientists think that fatty foods may also have a direct effect on estrogen metabolism, which increases endometrial cancer risk.
Physical activity protects against endometrial cancer. Several studies found that women who exercised more had a lower risk of this cancer, while in one study women who spent more time sitting had a higher risk.
Diabetes: Endometrial cancer may be as much as 4 times more common in women with diabetes. Diabetes is more common in people who are overweight, but even people with diabetes who are not overweight have a higher risk of endometrial cancer.
Family history: Endometrial cancer tends to run in some families. Some of these families also have an inherited tendency to develop colon cancer. This disorder is called hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC). Another name for HNPCC is Lynch syndrome. In most cases, this disorder is caused by a defect in either the gene MLH1 or the gene MSH2. But at least 5 other genes can cause HNPCC: MLH3, MSH6, TGBR2, PMS1, and PMS2. An abnormal copy of any one of these genes reduces the body's ability to repair damage to its DNA. This results in a very high risk of colon cancer, as well as a high risk of endometrial cancer. Women with this syndrome have a 40% to 60% risk of developing endometrial cancer sometime during their lives. The risk of ovarian cancer is also increased.
There are some families that have a high rate of only endometrial cancer. These families may have a different genetic disorder that hasn't been discovered yet.
Breast or ovarian cancer: Women who have had breast cancer or ovarian cancer may have an increased risk of developing endometrial cancer. Some of the dietary, hormonal, and reproductive risk factors for breast and ovarian cancer also increase endometrial cancer risk.
Prior pelvic radiation therapy: Radiation used to treat some other cancers can damage the DNA of cells, sometimes increasing the risk of a second type of cancer such as endometrial cancer.
Endometrial hyperplasia: Endometrial hyperplasia is an increased growth of the endometrium. Mild or simple hyperplasia, the most common type, has a very small risk of becoming cancerous. It may go away on its own or after treatment with hormone therapy. If the hyperplasia is called “atypical,” it has a higher chance of becoming a cancer. Simple atypical hyperplasia turns into cancer in about 8% of cases if it is not treated. Complex atypical hyperplasia (CAH) has a risk of becoming cancerous if not treated in up to 29% of cases.
Causes of Endometrial Cancer?
We do not yet know exactly what causes most cases of endometrial cancer, but we do know that there are certain risk factors, particularly hormone imbalance, for this type of cancer. A great deal of research is going on to learn more about the disease. We know that most endometrial cancer cells contain estrogen and/or progesterone receptors on their surfaces. Somehow, interaction of these receptors with their hormones leads to increased growth of the endometrium. This can mark the beginning of cancer. The increased growth can become more and more abnormal until it develops into a cancer.
As noted in the previous section about risk factors, many of the known endometrial cancer risk factors affect the balance between estrogen and progesterone in the body.
Scientists are learning more about changes in the DNA of certain genes that occur when normal endometrial cells become cancerous.
Can endometrial cancer be prevented?
Most cases of endometrial cancer cannot be prevented, but there are some things that may lower your risk of developing this disease.
One way to lower endometrial cancer risk is to change risk factors whenever possible. For example, women who are overweight or obese have up to 3½ times the risk of getting endometrial cancer as compared to women with a healthy weight. Getting to and maintaining a healthy weight is one way to lower the risk of this cancer.
Studies have also linked higher levels of physical activity to lower risks of endometrial cancer, so engaging in regular physical activity (exercise) may also be a way to help lower endometrial cancer risk. An active lifestyle can help you maintain a healthy weight, as well as lowering the risk of high blood pressure and diabetes (other risk factors for endometrial cancer.
Estrogen to treat the symptoms of menopause is available in many different forms like pills, skin patches, shots, creams, and vaginal rings. If you are thinking about using estrogen for menopausal symptoms, ask your doctor about how it will affect your risk of endometrial cancer. Progestins (progesterone-like drugs) can reduce the risk of endometrial cancer in women taking estrogen therapy, but this combination increases the risk of breast cancer. If you still have your uterus and are taking estrogen therapy, discuss this issue with your doctor.
Getting proper treatment of pre-cancerous disorders of the endometrium is another way to lower the risk of endometrial cancer. Most endometrial cancers develop over a period of years. Many are known to follow and possibly start from less serious abnormalities of the endometrium called endometrial hyperplasia. Some cases of hyperplasia will go away without treatment. Sometimes hyperplasia needs to be treated with hormones or even surgery. Treatment with progestins and a dilation and curettage (D&C) or hysterectomy can prevent hyperplasia from becoming cancerous. Abnormal vaginal bleeding is the most common symptom of endometrial pre-cancers and cancers, and it needs to be reported and evaluated right away.
Women with hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC, Lynch syndrome) have a very high risk of endometrial cancer. A woman with HNPCC may choose to have her uterus removed (a hysterectomy) after she has finished having children to prevent endometrial cancer. One study found that none of 61 women with HNPCC who had prophylactic (preventative) hysterectomies was later found to have endometrial cancer, while 1/3 of the women who didn't have the surgery did go on to be diagnosed with endometrial cancer over the next 7 years.
Can endometrial cancer be found early?
In most cases, noticing any signs and symptoms of endometrial cancer, such as abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge (that is increasing in amount, occurring between periods, or occurring after menopause), and reporting them right away to your doctor allows the disease to be diagnosed at an early stage. Early detection improves the chances that your cancer will be treated successfully. But some endometrial cancers may reach an advanced stage before signs and symptoms can be noticed.
Early detection tests
Early detection refers to the use of tests to find a disease such as cancer in people who do not have symptoms of that disease.
Women at average endometrial cancer risk
At this time, there are no screening tests or exams to find endometrial cancer early in women who are at average endometrial cancer risk and have no symptoms.
The American Cancer Society recommends that, at the time of menopause, all women should be told about the risks and symptoms of endometrial cancer and strongly encouraged to report any vaginal bleeding, discharge, or spotting to their doctor.
Women should talk to their doctors about getting regular pelvic exams. A pelvic exam can find some cancers, including some advanced uterine cancers, but it is not very effective in finding early endometrial cancers.
The Pap test (or Pap smear), which screens for cervical cancer, can occasionally find some early endometrial cancers, but it is not a good test for this type of cancer. The Pap test is very effective in finding early cancers of the cervix (the lower part of the uterus).
Women at increased endometrial cancer risk
The American Cancer Society recommends that most women at increased risk should be informed of their risk and be advised to see their doctor whenever there is any abnormal vaginal bleeding. This includes women whose risk of endometrial cancer is increased due to increasing age, late menopause, never giving birth, infertility, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, estrogen treatment, or tamoxifen therapy.
Women who have (or may have) hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC, Lynch syndrome) have a very high risk of endometrial cancer. If colon or endometrial cancer has occurred in several family members, you might want to think about having genetic counseling to learn about your family’s risk of having HNPCC. If you (or a close relative) have genetic testing and are found to have a mutation in one of the genes for HNPCC, you have a high risk of getting endometrial cancer.
The American Cancer Society recommends that women who have (or may have) HNPCC be offered yearly testing for endometrial cancer with endometrial biopsy beginning at age 35. Their doctors should discuss this test with them, including its risks, benefits, and limitations. This applies to women known to carry HNPCC-linked gene mutations, women who are likely to carry such a mutation (those with a mutation known to be present in the family), and women from families with a tendency to get colon cancer where genetic testing has not been done.
Another option for a woman who has (or may have) HNPCC would be to have a hysterectomy once she is finished having children.
There is no test recommended to find this cancer before symptoms develop (except for women at high risk). Routine pelvic exams rarely find this disease. Most women are diagnosed because they have symptoms.
Signs and symptoms of endometrial cancer
Unusual bleeding, spotting, or other discharge: About 90% of patients diagnosed with endometrial cancer have abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as a change in their periods or bleeding between periods or after menopause. This symptom can also occur with some non-cancerous conditions, but it is important to have a doctor look into any irregular bleeding right away. If you have gone through menopause, it is especially important to report any vaginal bleeding, spotting, or abnormal discharge to your doctor.
Non-bloody vaginal discharge may also be a sign of endometrial cancer. Even if you cannot see blood in the discharge, it does not mean there is no cancer. In about 10% of cases, the discharge associated with endometrial cancer is not bloody. Any abnormal discharge should be checked out by your doctor.
Pelvic pain and/or mass and weight loss: Pain in the pelvis, feeling a mass (tumor), and losing weight without trying can also be symptoms of endometrial cancer. These symptoms are more common in later stages of the disease. Still, any delay in seeking medical help may allow the disease to progress even further. This lowers the odds for successful treatment.
History and physical exam: If you have any of the symptoms of endometrial cancer described above, you should visit your doctor. The doctor will ask you about your symptoms, risk factors, and family medical history. The doctor will also perform a general physical exam and a pelvic exam.
Seeing a specialist: If the doctor thinks you might have endometrial cancer, you should be examined by a gynecologist, a doctor qualified to diagnose and treat diseases of the female reproductive system. Gynecologists can diagnose endometrial cancer, as well as treat some early cases. Specialists in treating cancers of the endometrium and other female reproductive organs are called gynecologic oncologists. These doctors treat both early and advanced cases of endometrial cancer.
Sampling endometrial tissue: To find out whether endometrial hyperplasia or endometrial cancer is present, the doctor must remove some tissue so that it can be looked at under a microscope. Endometrial tissue can be obtained by endometrial biopsy or by dilation and curettage (D&C) with or without a hysteroscopy. A specialist such as a gynecologist usually does these procedures, which are described below.
Endometrial biopsy: An endometrial biopsy is the most commonly performed test for endometrial cancer and is very accurate in postmenopausal women. It can be done in the doctor's office. In this procedure a very thin flexible tube is inserted into the uterus through the cervix. Then, using suction, a small amount of endometrium is removed through the tube. The suctioning takes about a minute or less. The discomfort is similar to menstrual cramps and can be helped by taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofen before the procedure. Sometimes numbing medicine (local anesthetic) is injected into the cervix just before the procedure to help reduce the pain.
Hysteroscopy: For this technique doctors insert a tiny telescope (about 1/6 inch in diameter) into the uterus through the cervix. To get a better view of the inside of the uterus, the uterus is filled with salt water (saline). This lets the doctor see and biopsy anything abnormal, such as a cancer or a polyp. This is usually done with the patient awake, using a local anesthesia (numbing medicine).
Dilation and curettage (D&C): If the endometrial biopsy sample doesn't provide enough tissue, or if the biopsy suggests cancer but the results are uncertain, a D&C must be done. In this outpatient procedure, the opening of the cervix is enlarged (dilated) and a special instrument is used to scrape tissue from inside the uterus. This may be done with or without a hysteroscopy.
The procedure takes about an hour and may require general anesthesia (where you are asleep) or conscious sedation (medicine given into a vein to make you drowsy) either with local anesthesia injected into the cervix or a spinal (or epidural). A D&C is usually done in an outpatient surgery area of a clinic or hospital. Most women have little discomfort after this procedure.
Testing of endometrial tissue: Endometrial tissue samples removed by biopsy or D&C are looked at under the microscope to see whether cancer is present. If cancer is found, it will be described. The lab report will state what type of endometrial cancer it is (like endometrioid or clear cell) and what grade it is.
Endometrial cancer is graded based on how much it looks like normal endometrium. A cancer is called grade 1 if 95% or more of the cancer forms glands similar to those of normal endometrial tissue. Grade 2 tumors have between 50% and 94% gland formations. Cancers with less than half of the tissue forming glands are given a grade of 3. Women with lower grade cancers are less likely to have advanced disease or recurrences.
If the doctor suspects hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC) as an underlying cause of the endometrial cancer, the tumor tissue can be tested for protein changes (decreased amount of mismatch repair proteins) or DNA changes (called microsatellite instability, or MSI) that can be caused when one of the genes that causes HNPCC is faulty. If these protein or DNA changes are present, the doctor may recommend that you see a genetic counselor to consider genetic testing for the genes that cause HNPCC. Testing for low mismatch repair protein levels or for MSI is most often ordered in patients who are found to have endometrial cancer at an earlier than usual age or who have a family history of endometrial or colon cancer.
Imaging tests for endometrial cancer
Transvaginal ultrasound or sonography: Ultrasound tests use sound waves to take pictures of parts of the body. For a transvaginal ultrasound a probe that gives off sound waves is inserted into the vagina. The sound waves create images of the uterus and other pelvic organs. These images often help show whether the endometrium is thicker than usual, which can be a sign of endometrial cancer. It may also help see if a cancer is growing into the muscle layer of the uterus (myometrium).
In order for the doctor to see the uterine lining more clearly, salt water (saline) may be put through a small tube into the uterus before the sonogram. This procedure is called a saline infusion sonogram or hysterosonogram. Sonography may help doctors direct their biopsy if other procedures didn't detect a tumor.
Cystoscopy and proctoscopy: If a woman has problems that suggest the cancer has spread to the bladder or rectum, the inside of these organs can be looked at through a lighted tube. In cystoscopy the tube is placed into the bladder through the urethra. Inproctoscopy the tube is placed in the rectum. These exams allow the doctor to look for possible cancers. Small tissue samples can also be removed during these procedures for pathologic (microscopic) testing. They can be done using a local anesthetic but some patients may require general anesthesia. Your doctor will let you know what to expect before and after the procedure. These procedures were used more often in the past, but now are rarely part of the work up for endometrial cancer.
Computed tomography (CT): The CT scan is an x-ray procedure that creates detailed, cross-sectional images of your body. For a CT scan, you lie on a table while an X-ray takes pictures. Instead of taking one picture, like a standard x-ray, a CT scanner takes many pictures as the camera rotates around you. A computer then combines these pictures into an image of a slice of your body. The machine will take pictures of many slices of the part of your body that is being studied.
Before any pictures are taken, you may be asked to drink 1 to 2 pints of a liquid called oral contrast. This helps outline the intestine so that certain areas are not mistaken for tumors. You may also receive an IV (intravenous) line through which a different kind of contrast dye (IV contrast) is injected. This helps better outline structures in your body.
The injection can cause some flushing (redness and warm feeling that may last hours to days). A few people are allergic to the dye and get hives. Rarely, more serious reactions like trouble breathing and low blood pressure can occur. Medicine can be given to prevent and treat allergic reactions. Be sure to tell the doctor if you have ever had a reaction to any contrast material used for x-rays.
CT scans are not used to diagnose endometrial cancer. However, they may be helpful to see whether the cancer has spread to other organs and to see if the cancer has come back after treatment.
CT scans can also be used to precisely guide a biopsy needle into a suspected area of cancer spread. For this procedure, called a CT-guided needle biopsy, you remain on the CT scanning table while a doctor moves a biopsy needle toward the mass. CT scans are repeated until the doctor is sure that the needle is inside the mass. A fine needle biopsy sample (tiny fragment of tissue) or a core needle biopsy sample (a thin cylinder of tissue about ½ inch long and less than 1/8 inch in diameter) is removed and looked at under a microscope.
CT scans take longer than regular x-rays. You might feel a bit confined by the ring you lie within when the pictures are being taken.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): MRI scans use radio waves and strong magnets instead of x-rays. The energy from the radio waves is absorbed and then released in a pattern formed by the type of tissue and by certain diseases. A computer translates the pattern of radio waves given off by the tissues into a very detailed image of parts of the body. This creates cross sectional slices of the body like a CT scanner and it also produces slices that are parallel with the length of your body.
MRI scans are particularly helpful in looking at the brain and spinal cord. Some doctors also think MRI is a good way to tell whether, and how far, the endometrial cancer has grown into the body of the uterus. MRI scans may also help find enlarged lymph nodes with a new technique that uses very tiny particles of iron oxide. These are given into a vein and settle into lymph nodes where they can be spotted by MRI.
Sometimes a contrast material is injected into a vein, just as with CT scans. The contrast used for MRI is different than the one used for CT. MRI scans are a little more uncomfortable than CT scans. First, they take longer, often up to an hour. Also, you have to be placed inside a tube, which is confining and can upset people with fear of enclosed places. Special, “open” MRI machines can help with this if needed, however the drawback is that the images may not be as good. The machine also makes a thumping or buzzing noise that you may find disturbing. Many places will provide headphones with music to block this out.
Positron emission tomography (PET): In this test radioactive glucose (sugar) is given to look for cancer cells. Because cancers use glucose (sugar) at a higher rate than normal tissues, the radioactivity will tend to concentrate in the cancer. A scanner can spot the radioactive deposits. This test can be helpful for spotting small collections of cancer cells. But PET scans are not a routine part of the work-up of endometrial cancer, and their role is still being studied.
Chest x-ray: This test can show whether the cancer has spread to the lungs. It may also be used to look for serious lung or heart problems, especially before surgery.
Complete blood count: The complete blood count (CBC) is a test that measures the different cells in the blood, such as the red blood cells, the white blood cells, and the platelets. Many times women with a lot of blood loss from the uterus will have low red blood cell counts (anemia).
CA 125 blood test: CA 125 is a substance released into the bloodstream by many, but not all, endometrial and ovarian cancers. In someone with endometrial cancer, a very high blood CA 125 level suggests that the cancer has probably spread beyond the uterus. If CA 125 levels are high before surgery, some doctors use follow-up measurements to find out how well the treatment is working (levels will drop after surgery if treatment is effective) and to see if the cancer has come back after initially successful treatment.
How is endometrial cancer staged?
Staging is the process of looking at all of the information the doctors have learned about your tumor to tell how much the cancer may have spread. The stage of an endometrial cancer is the most important factor in choosing a treatment plan. Ask your doctor to explain the stage of your cancer so that you can make fully informed choices about your treatment.
Doctors use a staging system to describe how far a patient's cancer has spread. The 2 systems used for staging endometrial cancer, the FIGO (International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics) system and the American Joint Committee on Cancer TNM staging system are basically the same. They both classify this cancer on the basis of 3 factors: the extent of the tumor (T), whether the cancer has spread to lymph nodes (N) and whether it has spread to distant sites (M). The system described below is the most recent AJCC system, which went into effect January 2010. The difference between the AJCC system and the FIGO system is that the FIGO system doesn’t include stage 0.
Endometrial cancer is staged based on examination of tissue removed during an operation. This, known as surgical staging, means that doctors often can't tell for sure what stage the cancer is in until after surgery is done.
A doctor may order tests before surgery, such as ultrasound, MRI, or CT scan, to look for signs that a cancer has spread. Although it is not as good as the surgical stage, this information can be helpful in planning surgery and other treatments. If these tests show that the cancer may have spread outside the uterus, you may be referred to a gynecologic oncologist (if you are not already seeing one).
The staging system looks at how far the cancer has spread. It can spread locally to the cervix and other parts of the uterus. It can also spread regionally to nearby lymph nodes (bean-sized organs that are part of the immune system). The regional lymph nodes are found in the pelvis and farther away along the aorta (the main artery that runs from the heart down along the back of the abdomen and pelvis). The lymph nodes along the aorta are called para-aortic nodes. Finally, the cancer can spread (metastasize) to distant lymph nodes, the upper abdomen, the omentum (a large fatty sheet of tissue in the abdomen that drapes like an apron over the stomach, intestines, and other organs), or other organs such as lung, liver, bone, and brain.
Tumor extent (T)
T0: No signs of a tumor in the uterus
Tis: Pre-invasive cancer (also called carcinoma in-situ). Cancer cells are only found in the surface layer of cells of the endometrium, without growing into the layers of cells below.
T1: The cancer is only growing in the body of the uterus. It may also be growing into the glands of the cervix, but is not growing into the supporting connective tissue of the cervix.
T1a: The cancer is in the endometrium (inner lining of the uterus) and may have grown from the endometrium less than halfway through the underlying muscle layer of the uterus (the myometrium).
T1b: The cancer has grown from the endometrium into the myometrium, growing more than halfway through the myometrium. The cancer has not spread beyond the body of the uterus.
T2: The cancer has spread from the body of the uterus and is growing into the supporting connective tissue of the cervix (called the cervical stroma). The cancer has not spread outside of the uterus.
T3: The cancer has spread outside of the uterus, but has not spread to the inner lining of the rectum or urinary bladder.
T3a: The cancer has spread to the outer surface of the uterus (called the serosa) and/or to the fallopian tubes or ovaries (the adnexa)
T3b: The cancer has spread to the vagina or to the tissues around the uterus (the parametrium).
T4: The cancer has spread to the inner lining of the rectum or urinary bladder (called the mucosa)
Lymph node spread (N)
NX: spread to nearby lymph nodes cannot be assessed
N0: no spread to nearby lymph nodes
N1: cancer has spread to lymph nodes in the pelvis
N2: cancer has spread to lymph nodes along the aorta (peri-aortic lymph nodes)
Distant spread (M)
M0: The cancer has not spread to distant lymph nodes, organs, or tissues
M1: The cancer has spread to distant lymph nodes, the upper abdomen, the omentum, or other organs (such as the lungs or liver)
AJCC stage grouping and FIGO stages
Information about the tumor, lymph nodes, and any cancer spread is then combined to assign the stage of disease. This process is called stage grouping. The stages are described using the number 0 and Roman numerals from I to IV. Some stages are divided into sub-stages indicated by letters and numbers.
Stage 0: Tis, N0, M0: This stage is also known as carcinoma in-situ. Cancer cells are only found in the surface layer of cells of the endometrium, without growing into the layers of cells below. The cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes or distant sites. This is a pre-cancerous lesion. This stage is not included in the FIGO staging system.
Stage I: T1, N0, M0: The cancer is only growing in the body of the uterus. It may also be growing into the glands of the cervix, but is not growing into the supporting connective tissue of the cervix. The cancer has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.
Stage IA (T1a, N0, M0): In this earliest form of stage I, the cancer is in the endometrium (inner lining of the uterus) and may have grown from the endometrium less than halfway through the underlying muscle layer of the uterus (the myometrium). It has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.
Stage IB (T1b, N0, M0): The cancer has grown from the endometrium into the myometrium, growing more than halfway through the myometrium. The cancer has not spread beyond the body of the uterus.
Stage II: T2, N0, M0: The cancer has spread from the body of the uterus and is growing into the supporting connective tissue of the cervix (called the cervical stroma). The cancer has not spread outside of the uterus. The cancer has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.
Stage III: T3, N0, M0: Either the cancer has spread outside of the uterus or into nearby tissues in the pelvic area.
Stage IIIA (T3a, N0, M0): The cancer has spread to the outer surface of the uterus (called the serosa) and/or to the fallopian tubes or ovaries (the adnexa). The cancer has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.
Stage IIIB (T3b, N0, M0): The cancer has spread to the vagina or to the tissues around the uterus (the parametrium). The cancer has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.
Stage IIIC1 (T1 to T3, N1, M0): The cancer is growing in the body of the uterus. It may have spread to some nearby tissues, but is not growing into the inside of the bladder or rectum. The cancer has spread to pelvic lymph nodes but not to lymph nodes around the aorta or distant sites.
Stage IIIC2 (T1 to T3, N2, M0): The cancer is growing in the body of the uterus. It may have spread to some nearby tissues, but is not growing into the inside of the bladder or rectum. The cancer has spread to lymph nodes around the aorta (peri-aortic lymph nodes) but not to distant sites.
Stage IV: The cancer has spread to the inner surface of the urinary bladder or the rectum (lower part of the large intestine), to lymph nodes in the groin, and/or to distant organs, such as the bones, omentum or lungs.
Stage IVA (T4, any N, M0): The cancer has spread to the inner lining of the rectum or urinary bladder (called the mucosa). It may or may not have spread to nearby lymph nodes but has not spread to distant sites.
Stage IVB (any T, any N, M1): The cancer has spread to distant lymph nodes, the upper abdomen, the omentum, or to organs away from the uterus, such as the bones, omentum, or lungs. The cancer can be any size and it may or may not have spread to lymph nodes.
Survival by stage of endometrial cancer Survival rates are often used by doctors as a standard way of discussing a person's prognosis (outlook). Some patients with cancer may want to know the survival statistics for people in similar situations, while others may not find the numbers helpful, or may even not want to know them. If you decide that you don’t want to know them, stop reading here and skip to the next section.
The 5-year survival rate refers to the percentage of patients who live at least 5 years after their cancer is diagnosed. Of course, many people live much longer than 5 years (and many are cured). Also, although some people die of their cancer, others die from something else. These are observed survival rates, and include deaths from all causes, not just from cancer.
In order to get 5-year survival rates, doctors have to look at people who were treated at least 5 years ago. Improvements in treatment since then may result in a more favorable outlook for people now being diagnosed with endometrial cancer.
Survival rates are often based on previous outcomes of large numbers of people who had the disease, but they cannot predict what will happen in any particular person's case. Many other factors may affect a person's outlook, such as their general health and how well the cancer responds to treatment. Your doctor can tell you how the numbers below may apply to you, as he or she is familiar with the aspects of your particular situation.
The numbers below come from the National Cancer Data Base, and are based on people diagnosed between 2000 and 2002.
Stage - 5-year survival
Stage 0 - 90%
Stage IA - 88%
Stage IB - 75%
Stage II - 69%
Stage IIIA - 58%
Stage IIIB - 50%
Stage IIIC - 47%
Stage IVA - 17%
Stage IVB - 15%
The statistics below for uterine carcinosarcoma are different from those given for endometrial adenocarcinoma in some important ways. First of all, the numbers given are for 5-year relative survival. These rates assume that some people will die of other causes and compare the observed survival with that expected for people without the cancer. This can better show the impact of a particular type and stage of cancer on survival. In addition, these numbers come from a different source -- the SEER program from the National Cancer Institute. Lastly, the stages listed are based on an older version of staging. In the most recent staging system, some of the cancers that were stage III might actually be considered stage I or II. These differences in staging may make it more difficult to apply these numbers to your own situation.
Stage I - 70%
Stage II - 45%
Stage III - 30%
Stage IV - 15%
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