Endometrial, or uterine, cancer is the most common reproductive cancer among American women. In fact, over their lifetimes, women stand a 2.5 percent risk of developing endometrial cancer. The cancer also makes up just over 6 percent of all cancers in women.
With this level of prevalence, it makes sense that women should be especially vigilant to detect endometrial cancer early. However, some other conditions effectively mimic endometrial cancer. These conditions can cause false panic, or lead women to be less likely to believe endometrial cancer caused their symptoms.
What Is Endometrial Cancer?
Also known as uterine cancer, endometrial cancer affects the interior of the uterus, the primary reproductive organ in women. Located in the pelvis, the uterus houses and nourishes the developing fetus during pregnancy. Its lining, called the endometrium, exists in two layers – the basal layer and the functional layer. During the menstrual cycle, the functional layer thickens to prepare to accommodate a zygote. It is then shed during menstruation if fertilization does not occur.
Endometrial cancer involves too-rapid cell growth and an eventual tumor on the basal layer of the endometrium. Other types of uterine cancer, such as uterine sarcoma, can occur on the other parts of the uterus but endometrial cancer is much more common. As a result, it is important to watch for signs of endometrial cancer.
What Are Some Signs of Endometrial Cancer?
There are numerous signs and symptoms of endometrial cancer. Some of the most common include:
- Watery, blood-tinged discharge. Watery, bloody discharge apart from your regular periods or after menopause is the most telling sign of endometrial cancer. It is a classic, or cardinal, symptom that women should never ignore.
- Any abnormal vaginal discharge and bleeding. Nearly 90 percent of women with endometrial cancer experienced abnormal vaginal bleeding at some point before diagnosis. Abnormal vaginal discharge and bleeding can encompass a number of symptoms:
- Bleeding between periods
- Bleeding after menopause
- Non-bloody, unusual discharge between periods or after menopause
- It is important to report abnormal bleeding, spotting, or any other abnormal discharge to your doctor, particularly if you’ve already experienced menopause.
- Pelvic pain. Though pelvic pain is common to many other pelvic conditions, when associated with some other symptoms, it can be a sign of endometrial cancer.
- Feeling bloating, a mass, or heaviness in the pelvis. Unusual feelings of heaviness or a mass in the abdomen can be a sign of a uterine tumor. However, this symptom is not common until endometrial cancer is more advanced.
- Painful sex and urination. Pain during sex – particularly deeper, cervical pain – can result from endometrial cancer. Similarly, pain during urination can indicate other pelvic issues.
- Unexplained weight loss. Unexplained weight loss can be a symptom of numerous conditions found throughout the body. However, in combination with other signs and symptoms mentioned above, weight loss can be the final piece to the puzzle when it comes to an endometrial cancer diagnosis.
What Other Conditions Can Mimic Endometrial Cancer?
A host of other pelvic and reproductive conditions can produce some of the same symptoms as endometrial cancer.
- Conditions that cause abnormal vaginal bleeding. Most of the conditions commonly confused with endometrial cancer are conditions that also produce abnormal vaginal bleeding:
- Menorrhagia, or regular, unusually heavy periods
- Anovulation, where the ovaries fail to release an egg
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- Endocrine syndromes that affect ovulation, like Cushing syndrome and hypo/hyperthyroidism
- Uterine polyps
- Uterine fibroids
- Malformed arteries and veins
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- Conditions that cause other symptoms mimicking endometrial cancer. Other symptoms of endometrial cancer, such as pelvic pain, pelvic masses, and abdominal bloating, can be caused by:
- Vaginal infections
- Cervical infections
- Cervical polyps
- Vaginal fistulas
- Urethral diseases
- Crohn’s disease
It is important to determine whether these conditions are present before continuing with treatments for endometrial cancer.
Are You at Risk for Endometrial Cancer?
As with any other form of cancer, the presence of certain factors for endometrial cancer can increase your risk. It is important to note that the presence of one or even many of these risk factors does not mean you will develop endometrial cancer. Rather, risk factors mean you may be more likely to develop cancer.
Consider whether you may have any of these endometrial cancer risk factors:
- Years of menstruation. More years of menstruation, whether due to early menstruation or later menopause, increases your risk of endometrial cancer.
- Older age. Apart from years of menstruation, older women are more likely to develop endometrial cancer, especially after menopause.
- Zero pregnancies. If you’ve never been pregnant, you are at increased risk of developing endometrial cancer.
- Obesity. Obese women are more likely to develop endometrial cancer, possibly because body fat can alter your hormones.
- Hereditary colon cancer syndrome. Otherwise known as hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer syndrome, or HNCCS, this syndrome increases your risk for multiple cancers, including colorectal and endometrial cancers.
- Certain hormonal drugs. Tamoxifen, a hormonal drug used to treat breast cancer, carries a small risk of causing endometrial cancer. However, the benefits outweigh the risks in many cases.
What Should You Do?
You can avoid some of the risk factors noted above by maintaining a healthy weight with diet and exercise, and thinking twice about using hormonal therapies. In addition, many doctors suggest using birth control pills for at least one year. This alteration in your routine can result in years’ worth of risk reduction for endometrial cancer.
If you notice symptoms of endometrial cancer, it is important to inform a doctor right away. Endometrial cancer is extremely treatable if caught early, and the most common signs and symptoms appear early in the cancer’s progress. Although other conditions may mimic some of these symptoms, it is best to seek an appointment with any of our knowledgeable practitioners at Arizona Gynecology Consultants. By determining what is causing your symptoms, we can pursue effective treatment.
Founder and Medical Director of ARIZONA GYNECOLOGY CONSULTANTS
Dr. Kelly Roy is a specialist in surgical gynecology and advanced laparoscopy (and hysteroscopy). She is a long-time resident of Arizona and obtained her Bachelor of Science degree in Biomedical Engineering at Arizona State University before finishing her Doctorate of Medicine at the University of Arizona in 1997.
Dr. Roy completed her residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology at the then “Banner Good Samaritan Hospital” (now Banner University Medical Center), in Phoenix Arizona in 2001.
Well known for her teaching and surgical ability, she is on the faculty at the residency program at both Banner University Medical Center and Saint Joseph’s Hospital in central Phoenix and is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Phoenix Campus. Dr. Roy has taught advanced surgical techniques to medical students, residents, fellows and colleagues for over 15 years.
Dr. Roy is also a consultant to the medical device industry and has participated in the design and clinical testing of many instruments and surgical devices available on the world-wide market today.