Uterine Cancer: How Black Women Are Disproportionately Affected And What They Can Do

by Gee NY
Dr. Onyinye Balogun, is radiation oncologist at New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital

A recent study by the American Medical Association found that uterine cancer is increasing by almost 2% every year, with people of color being the group most impacted by the disease.

Uterine cancer, also known as endometrial cancer, is cancer that begins as a growth of cells in the uterus, the hollow, pear-shaped pelvic organ where fetal development happens.

A recent report by  JAMA Oncology found that Black women are not only more likely to be diagnosed with the disease, but they are more than twice as likely to die from it than other racial and ethnic groups.

“A white woman who is diagnosed with endometrial cancer has a five-year survival rate of 84%,” says Dr. Onyinye Balogun, radiation oncologist at New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital and an assistant professor of radiation oncology at Weill Cornell Medicine. “If you’re a Black woman, that falls to 64%. That should not be the case.”

That’s not all. Dr Balogun has also explained that women of color have a greater risk of developing an aggressive variant of the disease called non-endometroid uterine cancer, which is rising significantly.

“This type of cancer is more likely to metastasize [spread],” she told Health Matters, in recognition of Gynecologic Awareness Month in September.

Dr Balogun also highlighted the reasons behind the risk factors of the disease and what Black women can do to protect their health and improve outcomes.

So what are the early signs of the disease? Health experts say the most common symptom is postmenopausal bleeding, which is present in 90% of patients. 

“Any kind of bleeding after menopause is not OK to leave unchecked,” explains Dr. Balogun. 

Her advise is that pre-menopausal women should do well to tell their doctor about changes in their bleeding, such as heavier periods than usual or intermittent spotting.

The good news, however, is that the disease can be cured if detected early, and its survival rate in its early stage is more than 90%. Unfortunately, according to Obstetrics & Gynecology, Black women tend to get diagnosed later when the cancer is more advanced and harder to treat.

Dr. Balogun explains that with no screening test for uterine cancer, like the Pap test for cervical cancer or mammograms for breast cancer, women need to be especially aware of their bodies and see a doctor as soon as they experience signs.

To avoid the deadly impact of the disease, Dr Balogun wants Black women to have a gynecological checkup every year. 

“An annual exam is important even if you are not sexually active,” she says.

There are also underlying risk factors that can heighten the impact of uterine cancer. Obesity and diabetes, which are disproportionately present in the Blacks, tend to worsen outcomes for Black women,” Dr Balogun says.

Lifestyle changes, like a healthy diet, regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and controlling high blood pressure are key to staying healthy overall and to having better outcomes if you do get uterine cancer. 

“I recommend to my patients to control what they can,” Dr. Balogun urges.

She adds that Black women can also talk to their doctors about whether they should take birth control pills, which are known to offer some protection against endometrial cancer. 

Women are also advised to check with their doctor before starting hormone replacement therapy for menopause symptoms to get the right type for them, as estrogen-only therapy may increase the risk.

Dr. Balogun is actively working to help address health disparities in uterine cancer. From access to health care to providers dismissing their symptoms, Black women face many systemic barriers.

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