It’s the most common cancer of the female reproductive system but also one of the most treatable. Here’s what you should know for best protection. Gina almost ignored the pinkish watery discharge she’d been experiencing for nearly a week. The 58-year-old was taking hormones, but the discharge didn’t coincide with the bleeding she’d come to expect. Concerned, she made an appointment with her gynecologist, who soon got to the root of the bleeding—endometrial cancer, or cancer of the uterine lining. Luckily, Gina’s cancer was caught at an early stage, and her outlook is bright.
Gina’s story illustrates the importance of reporting abnormal bleeding to your healthcare provider. In the case of endometrial cancer, abnormal bleeding, an early warning sign, may appear as a watery discharge streaked with blood. If you’ve reached menopause, be extra vigilant since the cancer strikes most frequently between ages 50 and 70.
Although scientists don’t know the exact cause of the cancer, they suspect prolonged exposure to estrogen may play a role. So women who began menstruating before age 12, went through menopause at age 52 or older, or took unopposed estrogen replacement therapy are at higher risk, as are women who have never been pregnant (pregnancy drives estrogen levels down). Overweight women are susceptible because they tend to store estrogen in fatty tissue. Finally, women with a family history of endometrial cancer should report any abnormal discharge right away because the disease tends to run in families.
To diagnose endometrial cancer, your healthcare provider must examine tissue samples from the endometrium, or uterine lining. He or she may obtain samples via an endometrial biopsy or endometrial aspiration. In some cases, a D&C (dilatation and curettage) is necessary.
If cancer is diagnosed, your healthcare provider will make treatment recommendations based on how severely the cancer has penetrated the uterine wall and whether it has spread beyond the uterus. A hysterectomy is the safest bet when the cancer is confined to the uterus. The ovaries and fallopian tubes may also be removed because the cancer commonly spreads to those areas. If the cancer has spread, lymph nodes may have to be removed, too.
Radiation and chemotherapy may be used in addition to or instead of surgery depending on the stage of the illness. In advanced cases, hormone treatments may be used to slow the cancer’s progress.
If you’re diagnosed with endometrial cancer, make sure you understand the pros and cons of each treatment option. And ask your healthcare provider what you can do to prepare for treatment.
In any case, you will enhance your recovery by eating a nutritious diet, staying active and getting adequate rest. You may also find it comforting to join a support group.