The 7 Most Common Uterine Cancer Symptoms, According to Doctors
An estimated 66,570 new cases of uterine cancer will be diagnosed in 2021 alone, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI)—they'll make up 3.5% of all new cancer diagnoses for that entire year. These statistics make uterine cancer the fourth most common cancer for women in 2021, behind breast cancer, lung cancer, and colorectal cancer.
Uterine cancer—technically cancer that originates in the uterus—can be separated out into two distinct types: the more common endometrial cancer, and the less common uterine sarcoma, per the NCI. Endometrial cancer, specifically, forms in the endometrium, or uterine lining (that's the stuff that sheds each month during menstruation); uterine sarcoma primarily affects the muscles or supporting tissues of the uterus.
Both types of uterine cancer can display similar symptoms, but before we dive in, there's something important to remember: These symptoms, though they can be a sign of endometrial cancer or uterine sarcoma, may also be a sign of a number of other far less dangerous conditions, Ursula Matulonis, MD, chief of the division of gynecologic oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, tells Health. Basically: Having any of these symptoms doesn't automatically mean you have uterine cancer, though they do suggest it's time to make an appointment with your ob-gyn.
Here, gynecologic oncologists explain seven of the most common symptoms associated with uterine cancer, and why it's essential to get them checked out by a doctor, ASAP.
Irregular vaginal bleeding or discharge
Irregular vaginal bleeding is the most common symptom of early stage uterine cancer, or uterine cancer that hasn't yet spread to other areas of the body, Pamela Soliman, MD, professor and center medical director in the Department of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, tells Health. This bleeding occurs when the cancer grows on the uterine lining, causing it to thicken. That thickening triggers the cells at the top of the uterine lining to slough off irregularly, Dr. Soliman explains.
In those who are premenopausal, this irregular bleeding can look like spotting in between periods, says Dr. Matulonis. Or it can be changes in the frequency or duration of your period, Alison Schram, MD, attending physician in the early drug development and gynecologic medical oncology services at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, tells Health. Post-menopause, it can be any type of vaginal bleeding or spotting. This bleeding is not always bright red; sometimes, it looks more like a brownish discharge, says Dr. Matulonis. The American Cancer Society adds that in a small number of endometrial cancer and uterine sarcoma diagnoses, there may be no visible blood in the discharge.
Irregular vaginal bleeding is much more likely to be a sign of cancer after menopause than before it, according to Dr. Soliman. (Uterine cancer most often occurs in women over 50, and the average age of diagnosis is 60, per to the American Society of Clinical Oncology.) "In a postmenopausal woman, that's definitely a red flag," she says. Still, anyone with irregular bleeding or discharge should raise the issue with their doctor.
Uterine cancer can cause pelvic pain when the cancer gets big enough that it compresses nearby structures and nerves that surround the uterus, says Dr. Schram. Pain can also occur when the body recognizes a tumor in the uterus as abnormal and starts to cramp up in an effort to dispel it, Dr. Soliman explains.
In later-stage uterine cancers, pain can occur when the cancer spreads beyond the uterus and into the pelvis or abdomen. In some cases, this spread can lead to fluid build-up in the pelvis or abdomen, which can, in turn, trigger discomfort, Dr. Schram says.
Pain from uterine cancer can be continuous, or it can come and go. It may even come on during vaginal sex, if there's external pressure put on a mass in the uterus due to intercourse. The severity of this pelvic pain, however, isn't uniform: Some patients may feel more discomfort than actual pain, says Dr. Matulonis; others might feel a sharper kind of pain.
Bloating is a much more common symptom for ovarian cancer than uterine cancer, but it can occur in either cancer type, says Dr. Schram. This happens when the cancer spreads from the uterus to the abdomen and causes fluid to build up in the abdomen. Sometimes, Dr. Schram adds, when the cancer mass is large enough, its presence alone can cause subjective bloating.
When uterine cancer spreads beyond the uterus and into the abdomen and pelvis, it can sometimes block off parts of the bowel and trigger GI issues, says Dr. Schram. These include diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, or early satiety (getting full fast).
Unintentional weight loss
When uterine cancer spreads from the uterus and into the abdomen, the cancer can push against the stomach and cause unintentional weight loss, says Dr. Matulonis. Weight loss can also occur in later stage uterine cancer because any advanced cancer can trigger inflammation in the body. This inflammation can eventually decrease your appetite and sometimes lead to weight loss, says Dr. Schram.
Increased urge to pee
If the cancer mass in your uterus gets big enough, it can push against your bladder. As a result, the bladder isn't able to fill as much as usual and you may feel compelled to empty it more often, explains Dr. Matulonis.
You might not experience any symptoms
Many patients with uterine cancer have no symptoms at all—or you might feel just generally unwell, without anything specific to point to, says Dr. Schram. This lack of symptoms is common with gynecologic cancers, although it's not common with all cancers, That's because your uterus is made to be able to expand—say, to fit a tumor, in the case of cancer—without significant consequence to the nearby structures, explains Dr. Schram.
Overall, if you're experiencing any of the above warning signs, or any other alarming symptoms, it's always best to schedule an appointment with your doctor. There, they can do a proper physical exam, and possibly perform an ultrasound to look at the inside of your uterus—the results from those exams will determine whether a biopsy or further testing is needed for a more accurate diagnosis.
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