Cancer of the inner lining of the uterus, called the endometrium, is the most common cancer of the female reproductive tract. Cancer of the uterus, or uterus cancer, is commonly referred to as uterine cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 39,300 new cases of uterine cancer, most of which are endometrial cancers, will be detected in the United States in 2002. The good news is that, if uterine cancer is detected and treated early, the prognosis for survival of uterine cancer is excellent.

The vast majority of women who are diagnosed with uterine cancer are menopausal; it is rare in women under the age of 30, and uncommon in women under 40. Unlike ovarian cancer, uterine cancer has a major, identifiable symptom in its early stages: abnormal vaginal bleeding. This is a symptom of the disease in over 95 percent of uterine cancer cases. Pelvic pressure is another common symptom, as is difficulty and pain during urination and pain during intercourse. If your cycles have become abnormal in any way — no matter what your age — contact your health care professional.

Abnormal bleeding as a symptom of uterine cancer

A woman's bleeding pattern changes as she approaches menopause. Typically, the amount of bleeding decreases and the time between bleeding increases. Some women may experience short periods with heavy bleeding.

One of the most common and annoying symptoms you may notice during your 40s is that your periods become irregular. They may be heavier one month and then very light the next. They may get shorter or last longer. You may even begin to skip your period every few months or lose track of when your periods should start and end. These symptoms are caused by irregular estrogen and progesterone levels. For example, if you don’t ovulate one month — which is common for women in their late 40s — progesterone isn’t produced to allow for effective shedding of the endometrium.

One note of caution: although irregular menstrual periods are common as you get closer to menopause, they can also be a symptom of uterine abnormalities or uterine cancer. If your periods stop for several months and then start again with heavy bleeding or if you start bleeding after menopause, consult with a gynecologist as soon as possible for an evaluation. Be sure to mention any menstrual irregularities during regular checkups. Most of the time, irregular bleeding is normal prior to menopause.

Copyright 2003 National Women's Health Resource Center Inc. (NWHRC)