Legendary journalist Gwen Ifill recently died from endometrial cancer, which happens to be the most common kind of gynecological cancer in women
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 mostly white men.
But her death also reminds us of the dangers of endometrial cancer, a disease that the 61-year-old died of less than a year after being diagnosed.
It’s also a disease that black women, like Ifill, are disproportionately affected by.
A 2015 study suggested that African-American women 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 6 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 to 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 more than 60,000 new cases of endometrial carcinoma will be diagnosed and roughly 10,500 will die, says recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
What puts us at an increased risk? According to the CDC, 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 make up the most cases of this cancer, with an average age of 60 years old. But don’t sleep: Ladies in their forties and thirties are also being diagnosed.
- Obesity: Past studies show carrying a lot of extra weight can kick drive your body into producing levels of estrogen linked to this disease. Also: Endometrial cancer is twice as common in overweight women as it is 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, an inherited disease that can also cause colon and uterine cancer.
What are the 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 watery discharge
How is it diagnosed?
Typically endometrial cancer is diagnosed early—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 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? Women who are diagnosed with endometrial cancer undergo a hysterectomy, as well as removal of their ovaries and fallopian tubes, Self.com reported.
Karen Lu, M.D., professor and chair of gynecologic oncology and reproductive medicine at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, told Self that “in most cases, surgery alone is enough.” She also stressed that “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 an aggressive form of uterine cancer called papillary serous uterine cancer. “Unlike typical endometrial cancer, women with uterine papillary serous cancer, even at early stages, are at high risk for worse outcomes,” Dr. Lu said.
It’s not clear why black women are more prone to these aggressive forms of cancers. It’s believed our higher rates of obesity could play a role. Genetics and our access to quality health care could also be to blame for our mortality rates. But this lack of clarity speaks to why more research needs to be done to hone 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 fool-proof 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 off anything!
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.
From Hello Beautiful