Uterine cancer is a potentially life-threatening disease that primarily affects women over the age of 50. It is unusual to find uterine cancer in women of child-bearing age.
Uterine cancer is one of several reproductive cancers that affect women. As with all cancers, uterine cancer is characterized by excessive growth of abnormal cells. These cells multiply in an uncontrolled fashion, and old cells fail to die when they should. The cells grow in masses, forming tumors. As the disease progresses, these cells can invade other parts of the body (also called metastasizing), either by spreading to nearby tissue and organs or by traveling through the blood stream and colonizing in other areas.
The most common type of cancer in the uterus is called endometrial cancer, and it begins in the lining of the uterus, or endometrium. This type of cancer is most often referred to simply as uterine cancer or cancer of the uterus. Cancer that develops in uterine muscles, or myometrium, is called sarcoma. Sarcoma refers to any cancer in connective or supportive tissue anywhere in the body, and is not limited to the uterus, so the term uterine cancer is generally used exclusively to describe endometrial cancer.
Women who have had a history of cancer in their family, receive hormone therapy, take estrogen and progesterone supplements, have had a history of colorectal cancer, or suffer from obesity are at greater risk, as are those who have a condition called endometrial hyperplasia, in which cells that line the uterus wall grow at abnormal rates. Race also plays a factor in a woman's likelihood of developing the disease, with a greater number of cases developing in white women. The biggest predictor of uterine cancer, however, is age; there are very few cases of the disease in woman who have not yet reached middle age.
Uterine cancer is usually diagnosed with the aid of several tests or examinations. Doctors typically perform a pelvic exam to feel for abnormalities in the uterus, bladder, rectum, and vagina. Another method of checking for cancerous growth in the uterus is a vaginal ultrasound, which uses sound waves to create a picture of the uterus, and can show if the endometrium is abnormally thick. A test called a biopsy may also be performed, which involves taking a sample of uterine tissue and sending it to a laboratory, where it can be examined to determine the presence of cancerous cells.