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Uterine Cancer Is on the Rise: What Women Should Know

June 17, 2024

When you think about cancer affecting women, breast cancer probably comes to mind. But there’s another type of cancer you should know about—uterine cancer. 

While uterine cancer is far less common than breast cancer, the American Cancer Society estimates that 66,200 women will be diagnosed in 2023 alone. Gynecologic cancers affect the organs and tissues of a woman’s reproductive system, and uterine cancer is the most common type of gynecologic cancer. 

Alarmingly, researchers have found that there’s been a steady increase in the number of cases and deaths from uterine cancer over the years. Keep reading to learn more.

Making Sense of Uterine Cancer
Uterine cancer is a type of cancer that forms in the uterus, also called the womb. The most common type of uterine cancer is endometrial cancer—which grows in the lining of the uterus, called the endometrium.

All women with a uterus are at risk of developing uterine cancer, but the risk increases as you get older. The disease is most commonly diagnosed in women who have gone through menopause.

Other risk factors for uterine cancer include:

  • Being overweight
  • Having certain genetic mutations, including BRCA1 or BRCA2
  • Having close family members with uterine, colorectal, or ovarian cancer
  • Having had fewer than five periods per year before starting menopause
  • Having undergone radiation therapy targeting the pelvis
  • Taking estrogen therapy during menopause
  • Taking tamoxifen for the prevention or treatment of breast cancer (Tamoxifen can lead to endometrial cancer -rarely. For every 1000 patients on tamoxifen, 1-2 patients (0.1-0.2 %) will develop endometrial cancer.)

Uterine cancer is most often detected in later stages, after it has spread. That’s largely because there is no routine screening for the early detection of the disease. By the time symptoms have emerged, the cancer may have worsened.

Because of this, it’s important to keep a close eye on your health and to talk with your women’s health provider about any symptoms you experience. It’s especially important to talk with your provider about abnormal bleeding. This includes heavier bleeding than normal, bleeding between periods, or any bleeding after menopause.

Uterine cancer may also cause other symptoms, including pelvic pain and pain during intercourse. 

The Rise in Uterine Cancer
While there has been a recent decrease in diagnosed cases of many types of cancer, unfortunately that’s not the case for uterine cancer. Despite advancements in detecting and treating this type of cancer, the number of cases continues to increase—as does the number of deaths tied to the condition.

A study published in May 2022 found that the mortality rate for uterine cancer in all American women increased by 1.8% each year between 2010 and 2017. The risk is especially significant among Black women. Another study published in September 2023, looking at 50 years of health data, found that mortality rates increased by 1.25% between 1997 and 2018, and the mortality rate for non-Hispanic Black women was more than double that for other women.

The study also found another alarming trend—deadly uterine cancer is increasingly being found among younger women, particularly non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic women between the ages of 30 and 39. This may be tied to a recently found link between the use of chemical hair straighteners containing formaldehyde and a much higher risk of uterine cancer. Because of this link, the FDA is considering a ban on the products’ use.

What should we take away from these statistics? As uterine cancer is being diagnosed more often and in later stages, it’s critical to make a special effort to know what’s normal for your body and what’s not. Your best defense against this type of cancer, and others, is to keep an eye out for anything unusual, health-wise, and talk with your providers when something seems odd.

What You Can Do to Lower Your Risk of Uterine Cancer
There are some risk factors that are beyond your control, such as your age, your family medical history, your menstrual history, and genetic mutations. But there are some steps you can take to lower your risk.

This starts with living a healthy lifestyle. Talk with your medical provider about what a healthy weight looks like for you—and take steps to get to that weight. Taking literal steps can also help, since being more physically active is a good way to protect your health.

You may also want to talk with your women’s health provider about whether you’d benefit from taking estrogen and progesterone. The specific recommendation will depend on whether you’ve been through menopause, but you may benefit from taking oral contraceptives containing both estrogen and progesterone before menopause or hormone replacement therapy with both hormones after menopause. Because there are risks associated with any medication, your provider can help you make an educated decision about whether these medications would be right for you.

If you’re at a higher risk of developing uterine cancer, talk with your provider about other steps you should take to protect your health.

When you or your loved ones are affected by cancer, including uterine cancer, you need a gentle touch and specialized expertise. You can find that at Kirkland Cancer Center.