What Is Endometrial Cancer?

Front view cross section of uterus and vagina showing endometrium lining inside of uterus.

Cancer occurs when cells in the body change and start growing out of control. Cancer cells can form lumps of tissue called tumors. Cancer that starts in the lining of the uterus is called endometrial cancer.

Understanding the uterus and endometrium

The uterus is part of the female reproductive system. It's the organ that holds the baby when a woman is pregnant. The endometrium is the inside lining of the uterus. Each month, from puberty to menopause, the lining grows and thickens to prepare for pregnancy. This thickened lining helps to nourish a growing baby. If a woman doesn’t become pregnant, the lining of the uterus is shed. This is her period.

When endometrial cancer forms

The endometrium is the most common place in the uterus for cancer to start. It's the most common type of gynecologic cancer (cancer in the female reproductive system). Cancer can destroy tissue in the uterus. Cancer cells may also spread to nearby organs and other parts of the body. When cancer spreads, it is called metastasis. In general, the more cancer spreads, the harder it is to treat.

Endometrial cancer often causes abnormal vaginal bleeding which may cause a woman to seek medical care. In these cases, endometrial cancer is often found when it is small and has not spread (metastasized). This is when the cancer is easiest to treat and cure. 

Treatment options for cancer of the uterus

You and your healthcare provider will discuss your treatment options. These may include:

  • Surgery to remove the uterus (hysterectomy). Sometimes the fallopian tubes and ovaries are also removed.

  • Radiation therapy. This uses directed rays of high-energy to kill cancer cells.

  • Chemotherapy. This uses strong medicine to kill cancer cells.

  • Hormone therapy. This treatment affects hormone levels and may help slow the growth of cancer cells. It may be used in some cases to avoid hysterectomy and allow a woman to get pregnant in the future.

  • Biologic therapy (immunotherapy). This uses medicines that act like your body's own immune system to fight cancer.  At this time, these treatments are only available in clinical trials.