When it comes to breast cancer, we all know that we should be checking our for changes in size, unusual lumps and dimpling to the skin – but do you know what to look out for when it comes to uterine cancer?
Despite being the fourth most common cancer for women in the UK, it’s one of the less talked about, meaning many write off the warning signs as something innocuous.
Recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US reveal that uterine cancer diagnoses and deaths are alarmingly on the rise, despite major progress made against most other types of cancer.
Incidence rates are rising fastest among black women, and the report found that black women were “approximately twice as likely to die from uterine cancer” compared with women in other racial and ethnic groups.
Uterine cancer, also called endometrial or womb cancer, starts in the lining of the uterus, but can spread to other parts of the reproductive system including the cervix, fallopian tubes, ovaries, vagina and vulva.
It’s not known exactly what causes womb cancer, although the NHS reports that a number of things can increase your risk of developing the condition, such as age, oestrogen levels after the menopause, being overweight and your reproductive history.
Women who take tamoxifen – a hormone treatment for breast cancer– can be at an increased risk of developing womb cancer too.
Symptoms of uterine cancer
Here, we explain some of the signs and symptoms to look out for…
1. Abnormal bleeding
Uterine cancer is most common in women over the age of 55, and the biggest warning sign that you might be affected is post-menopausal bleeding.
If you’ve been through the menopause, any vaginal bleeding is considered abnormal, so it’s a big sign that something might not be right. Experts say that the bleeding may begin as a watery, progressing into a heavier flow. Only 1 in 10 cases of vaginal bleeding after the menopause are caused by womb cancer, but it’s better to get it checked out, for your own peace of mind.
Uterine cancer can also strike women who have not been through the menopause, so they need to look out for any unusual vaginal bleeding, such as periods that are heavier than usual or vaginal bleeding in between normal periods.
The majority of women diagnosed with uterine cancer (about 90%) experience abnormal vaginal bleeding, which should be a red flag to anyone.
2. Unusual discharge
Some amount of vaginal discharge is normal between periods, but if the amount, colour or smell changes, it could be a sign that something’s up.
Once you’ve gone through the menopause though, discharge isn’t common after your periods stop for good, so it’s always worth telling a doctor if you’re still seeing some.
3. Pain during sex
A less common symptom of uterine cancer is pain in the lower abdomen (tummy) and pain during sex. Unlike cervical cancer, tests like pelvic exams and smear tests don’t easily detect this type of cancer, so it’s worth taking note of any subtle changes in your body.
4. Back pain
Not every woman with uterine cancer will experience pain, but if the cancer progresses to a later stage without treatment, it’s more likely you will. Usually the pressure will be felt in the back and the pelvis, as the uterus may have become enlarged due to the cancer.
5. Loss of appetite and fatigue
Other symptoms to look out for are changes to your appetite and your energy levels, but as these symptoms are subtle, it can be difficult to pin point.
The NHS stresses to see a GP if you’re concerned about uterine cancer – particularly if you have bleeding after the menopause or notice a change in the normal pattern of your period.
Uterine cancer treatment
Surgery (hysterctomy) is often the main treatment for womb cancer. This is sometimes followed by radiotherapy or chemotherapy to try to kill any possible remaining cancer cells, depending on the stage and grade of the cancer.
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