Fibroids and Cancer
Uterine fibroids are not cancer. They are benign tumors that develop on uterine tissue, and they are very common. In the United States, an estimated 26 million women between the ages of 15 and 50 have uterine fibroids.
Most women with fibroids don’t experience any symptoms. But for those who do, worrying whether your uterine fibroids might be cancerous is normal. After all, the symptoms of fibroid tumors are similar to some uterine cancer symptoms.
The good news is that uterine fibroids are rarely cancerous. Fewer than one in 1,000 fibroids turn out to harbor cancer.
Also, uterine fibroids themselves are not cancerous.
However, a cancerous growth can hide within a fibroid. If that’s the case, it’s critical to get treatment right away as this type of cancer can spread quickly.
Ultimately, every woman should know what uterine fibroids are and what to do if they’re experiencing symptoms indicating any type of growth on the uterus. Understanding uterine fibroids, cancer, and the differences can empower you to take steps to protect your reproductive health.
Uterine Fibroids: What Are They, and Who’s at Risk?
Fibroids consist of muscle and fibroid connective tissue. They can be as small as a seed or as large as a grapefruit.
Smaller fibroids aren’t likely to cause symptoms. As they grow, however, they can cause a host of problems, ranging from heavy menstrual bleeding and lower back pain to a swollen abdomen, also known as a fibroid belly bulge.
No one knows what causes these benign growths, but researchers do know that certain risk factors make women more prone to developing fibroids. The most common uterine fibroid risk factors include the following:
- Age: Some women have fibroids in their teens or twenties, but your risk increases as you near menopause. After menopause, fibroid risk tends to decrease.
- Family history: If a close family member had uterine fibroids, you’re more likely to develop them. For example, if your mother had them, your risk is three times higher than average.
- African-American ancestry: Ultrasound evidence shows that over 80 percent of African American women have fibroids by age 50, and about 70 percent of Caucasian women have fibroids by age 50.
- Obesity: Women who are obese or have a high body mass index (BMI) are known to have an increased risk of developing uterine fibroids.
Uterine Sarcoma: What Is It, and Who’s at Risk?
When a growth that develops within the muscle walls of the uterus or in the tissue that connects the uterine lining to the walls of the uterus turns out to be cancerous, it’s known as uterine sarcoma.
Uterine sarcomas only make up about 2 to 5 percent of all uterine cancers.
A leiomyosarcoma, which is a cancer that’s harbored in a uterine fibroid, is the most common type of uterine sarcoma. This term is used to describe a uterine fibroid that turns out to be cancer.
Uterine sarcoma is extremely rare – only about 5,000 women in the United States are affected each year. They also rarely impact women who haven’t gone through menopause.
Where uterine fibroids are most likely to cause symptoms in your 30s or 40s, uterine sarcoma is not likely to occur before the age of 40. The average age of a diagnosis is 60.
As with uterine fibroids, there’s no known cause of uterine sarcoma, but there are factors that could increase your risk. They include the following:
- Radiation exposure: If you’ve had radiation therapy to treat a previous cancer of the pelvic area, your risk is higher.
- The drug tamoxifen: This medication is used to prevent and treat breast cancer – taking it for five years or longer can increase your risk of developing uterine sarcoma.
- Family history: If someone in your family has been diagnosed with uterine fibroids cancer or renal cell carcinoma syndrome, you might be more at risk.
Uterine Fibroids vs. Cancer: What to Look For
Symptoms of fibroid cancer and uterine fibroids are similar, making it difficult to distinguish between a benign tumor and a cancerous growth without proper medical testing.
If you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms of uterine fibroids or cancer, it’s important to see a doctor for a diagnosis.
Using modern imaging techniques, such as an ultrasound or MRI, an experienced fibroid specialist can determine if you should have a fibroid biopsy to rule out cancer.
Fibroid Symptoms vs. Cancer Symptoms
Noncancerous fibroids and uterine sarcoma can lead to an enlarged uterus or a feeling of a mass in the pelvis or vagina.
Because both of these growths can impact nearby organs, they can also cause constipation, frequent urination, and pain in the lower back.
Here are the most common fibroid symptoms — which can also be signs of uterine sarcoma:
- Heavy, prolonged menstruation between or during your periods
- Anemia, which can lead to fatigue and iron deficiency
- Pain during intercourse
- Frequent urination or difficulty emptying the bladder
- Chronic constipation or bloating
- Pain in your pelvis or lower back
- Increased menstrual cramping
- Abdominal swelling
In addition to symptoms associated with benign uterine fibroids, signs that a fibroid may be cancerous include:
- Quick fibroid growth that causes acute pain in the abdominal or pelvic area
- Post-menopausal bleeding
- Anemia from heavy bleeding that can result in fatigue
- Unusual findings from imaging or blood tests
If you are unsure whether you’re experiencing symptoms of fibroids or something more serious, take our symptoms quiz to learn more.
Although not usually considered life-threatening, fibroids have the potential to put pressure on surrounding organs, impact fertility, as well as cause painful and uncomfortable symptoms.
And, while extremely rare, it is possible for uterine fibroids to turn out to be cancer. Instead of worrying about whether you have fibroids or cancer, or putting your health at risk by allowing a tumor to continue developing without medical care, it’s important to see an experienced doctor right away.
The doctors at USA Fibroid Centers are all skilled fibroid specialists who can offer an expert diagnosis and the best care for fibroids. Schedule an appointment today with a specialist near you!
Can a Fibroid Become Cancerous?
Doctors think that cancers found within a fibroid do not arise from an already-existing fibroid. Also, having fibroids does not also increase a woman’s chances of getting other forms of uterine cancer.
However, it is possible to mistake a cancerous growth for a benign fibroid.
At USA Fibroid Centers, our experienced fibroid specialists are available to closely assess ultrasounds and MRIs to determine whether a fibroid may be cancerous. If more tests are needed to verify, our doctors will recommend next steps to ensure you’re getting the care you need.
How Do Doctors Know It’s a Fibroid Instead of Cancer?
Medical imaging can be used to tell the difference between fibroids and cancerous tumors in the uterus.
Additionally, pathologists (doctors who specialize in analyzing bodily tissue) can look at a biopsy of the fibroid under a microscope and count the dividing cells. By counting these dividing cells, also known as mitotic figures, they can determine if a fibroid is cancerous.
If cancer is suspected based on your imaging exams, further examination or treatment may be recommended.
Should You Have a Fibroid Biopsy?
A fibroid may be biopsied anytime a doctor is concerned about a growth or abnormal symptoms. For instance, your physician may order a biopsy if you have abnormal menstrual bleeding or if you don’t bleed during your period.
A doctor may also want to take a biopsy before fibroid removal to ensure it isn’t cancer.
A biopsy takes only ten minutes and is a simple procedure done in a clinic or office. Your doctor will remove a tissue sample using a catheter in the uterus. Once the sample is collected, it will be sent to the lab for testing.
What’s a Safe Treatment for Fibroids?
Though the risk of developing fibroid cancer is very low, it’s still important to keep in mind when considering how to manage any uterine tumors. Some treatments designed to treat benign fibroids can make a prognosis worse if they’re unknowingly used on cancerous tumors.
In past years, tools known as power morcellators, surgical instruments used for the division and removal of large masses of tissues during laparoscopic surgery, were used in hysterectomies and myomectomies to break up fibroids and make them easier to remove.
In recent years, procedures with power morcellators have been associated with spreading cancer cells. Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns against their use due to the risk of spreading undiagnosed cancer cells to other parts of the body.
At USA Fibroid Centers, we offer a safe, effective, minimally invasive treatment called Uterine Fibroid Embolization (UFE). This non-surgical, outpatient solution doesn’t use power morcellators and leaves the tumors in one piece. UFE blocks off the blood supply to the fibroids and causes them to shrink and wither away over time.
If your fibroid is believed to involve cancerous cells, you will likely be referred to an oncology team that specializes in uterine cancers. They can discuss your treatment options and make personalized recommendations, including surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation.
At USA Fibroid Centers, we’re dedicated to helping people like you find relief from fibroid symptoms to live healthier, happier lives.
To speak to one of our experienced fibroid specialists, schedule a consultation today, or give us a call at 855-615-2555. Along with dozens of clinic locations, we also offer convenient virtual doctor visits.