Less than two weeks ago, we lost legendary journalist Gwen Ifill.
The host of “Washington Week” and “PBS NewsHour” was a trailblazer for African-Americans and women in the newsroom, reminding us that it is possible to break through in a field that was dominated—and continues to be dominated—by white men.
But her death also reminds us of the dangers of endometrial cancer, a disease that the 61-year-old died from less than a year after being diagnosed.
It’s also a disease that Black women, like Ifill, are disproportionately likely to have.
A 2015 study suggested that African-American are most at-risk for developing the most aggressive types of this cancer and dying from it. Researchers from the Wayne State University’s Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit found that endometrial tumors increased among all racial and ethnic groups, but they were up 2.5 percent among Black women and Asian women compared to less than a one percent rise among white women and 1.8 percent for Latinas.
Researchers also found that are survival rates aren’t always promising.
While the five-year survival rate for endometrial carcinoma is 81.7 percent, during the same time period, African-American women were six percent less likely to survive low-grade tumors and 59 percent less likely to survive more aggressive malignancies compared to their white counterparts.
Yes, these findings are alarming, but it’s incredibly important for Black women that be armed with this reality and basic information about this disease, potential prevention strategies and its signs and symptoms.
WHAT IS ENDOMETRIAL CANCER?
Endometrial cancer is the most common type of gynecological cancer in women. The cancer forms on the lining of one’s uterus (also called the endometrium or womb).
In 2016, it estimated that more than 60,000 new cases of endometrial carcinoma will be diagnosed and that roughly 10,500 will die, says recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
WHAT PUTS US AT AN INCREASED RISK?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all women are at risk for the disease, but the following plays a role in who has an increased risk for developing this type of cancer.
- Race: As stated above, Black and Asian women have an increased risk.
- Age: Women who are in menopause comprise the most cases of this cancer, with an average age of 60-years-old. But don’t sleep: Ladies in their 40s and 30s are also being diagnosed.
- Obesity: Past studies show that carrying a lot of extra weight can kick drive your body into producing levels of estrogen that are linked to this disease. Also, endometrial cancer is twice as common in overweight women than in normal weight women, while obese women have more than three times the risk of the disease.
- Lack of pregnancies: Women who have never been pregnant have a higher risk than women who have been pregnant.
- Diabetes and Lynch syndrome: These diseases can also cause colon and uterine cancer.
WHAT ARE THE SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS?
- Post-menopausal bleeding
- Bleeding that is abnormal—too long or heavy compared to past periods or spotting in between periods (which can also be a sign of other issues as well)
- Pelvic pain or pressure
- Bleeding after sex
- Abnormal bloody or water discharge
HOW IS IT DIAGNOSED?
Typically endometrial cancer is diagnosed early on—but that also depends on one’s access to health care—and if you’re showing signs, it can be tested through a pelvic exam, endometrial biopsy and/or a transvaginal ultrasound. If needed, the doctor might also perform a biopsy on any tumors detected.
Now, if you’re not showing any signs, the CDC stresses that there’s no clear and easy way to test. Also: A Pap Smear DOES NOT test for uterine cancer; that’s just for cervical cancer.
WHAT HAPPENS IF I‘M DIAGNOSED?
Typically women who are diagnosed with endometrial cancer undergo a hysterectomy as well as removal of her ovaries and fallopian tubes, Self.com reported.
Karen Lu, M.D., professor and chair, Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine, MD Anderson Cancer Center told Self that “In most cases, surgery alone is enough,” and she also stressed that if “women whose cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or other organs will also undergo radiation and chemotherapy.”
In addition, Black women are more likely to be diagnosed with aggressive form of uterine cancer called papillary serous uterine cancer, which Lu says, “Unlike typical endometrial cancer, women with uterine papillary serous cancer, even at early stages, are at high risk for worse outcomes,” she says.
Sadly, it’s not clear why Black women are more prone to these aggressive forms of cancers. It’s believed that our higher rates of obesity could play a role, so can genetics and our access to quality to health care could also be to blame for our mortality rates. But this lack of clarity truly speaks to why more research needs to be done to narrow in on the cause of this pressing racial health disparity.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO PREVENT THIS TYPE OF CANCER?
So here’s the deal: There isn’t a foolproof way to prevent endometrial cancer, but there are definitely ways to reduce your risk.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Take birth control pills or use a progestin-based IUD
- Pay serious attention to what’s going on with your body: If you see or feel something that’s off, say something to your gyno or health care provider. Do not brush anything off!
In the end, it’s imperative to discuss any issues you are having as early as possible—that can be the difference between life and death.
Learn more about endometrial and other forms of gynecological cancers are cdc.gov.