Iconic PBS Newshour anchor Gwen Ifill died in 2017 at age 61 of endometrial cancer. The passing of this trailblazing journalist and role model for many women and the African-American community has shed light on the importance of being vigilant about well-woman exams and early detection of gynecologic conditions that are treatable when diagnosed early on.
The most common type of uterine cancer, endometrial carcinoma strikes more than 60,000 U.S. women every year. It is treatable and even curable in many cases when caught early. I say “many cases” because for unknown reasons Black women are more likely to die from endometrial cancer, regardless of the stage of the cancer at the point of diagnosis. All women are at risk for uterine cancer, but the risk increases with age. Most uterine cancers are found in women who are going through or who have gone through menopause. Several factors may increase the chance of getting uterine cancer, which is the fourth most common cancer in women:
- Age: Most cases of endometrial cancer are detected in women who are past menopause.
- Obesity: Having a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or greater is a major risk.
- Hormone levels: The amount of estrogen and progesterone in a woman’s body can affect her risk. For example, women who take estrogen by itself (without progesterone) for hormone replacement during menopause have a higher risk.
- Genetics: A family history of uterine, colon or ovarian cancer.
- Take tamoxifen, a drug used to treat certain types of breast cancer.
- Have never been pregnant, had trouble getting pregnant or have had fewer than five periods in a year before starting menopause.
There aren’t any reliable ways to test for uterine cancer in women who do not have any signs or symptoms. The Pap test does not screen for uterine cancer. The only cancer the Pap test screens for is cervical cancer. This makes it doubly important to recognize uterine cancer warning signs and consult with your doctor about what you can do to reduce your risk.
Most women with endometrial cancer have early symptoms, the most common of which is abnormal bleeding. For women who are premenopausal, this includes irregular menstrual bleeding, spotting and bleeding between menstrual periods. For women who are postmenopausal, any bleeding is abnormal. Symptoms of advanced endometrial cancer include abdominal or pelvic pain, bloating, feeling full quickly when eating and changes in bowel or bladder habits.
Treatment of endometrial cancer usually includes surgery. The cervix and uterus are removed (a total hysterectomy), plus both ovaries and fallopian tubes. Depending on the stage of cancer, chemotherapy or
radiation therapy may also be necessary.
There’s no known way to prevent uterine cancer. Ask your doctor about how often you should be checked for uterine cancer, and what you can do to
decrease your risk.
Dr. Jagjit Khairah is a board-certified OB/GYN specialist at Kelsey-Seybold’s Fort Bend Medical and
Diagnostic Center. To make an appointment with him, call 713-442-0000.