There are many risk factors identified for womb cancer. It is the 4th most common cancer in women in the UK. The top three are breast, lung and colorectal cancers. While researchers don’t know what causes womb cancer, they know there are factors that can increase your chances of developing it.
Some of these risk factors we cannot do much about, but there are others we can influence. Read to find out more about risk factors of womb cancer.
Meaning of Risk Factor
Different cancers come with different risk factors, although some, like smoking are common to all cancers. A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer.
It is worth remembering that having a risk factor doesn’t automatically mean you will get cancer. Many women with risk factors never develop womb cancer. It is still worth eliminating those risk factors that you can do something about.
Like with many other cancers, the risk of womb cancer is higher in older women. But as I have mentioned before, younger women should not discount the possibility just because of their age and should have any symptoms investigated. And remember, don’t let your doctor dismiss your concerns either. GPs are not specialists, and you sometimes you might need to pester them a little.
But back to age as a risk factor. Most womb cancer diagnoses are in women who have had their menopause.
The risk of womb cancer increases with age. Most women diagnosed with womb cancer have had their menopause.
Obviously, ageing is not a risk factor we can do much about. That is why it is even more important to focus on the other manageable risk factors as we age.
Lynch Syndrome and Family History
As regular readers know, one reason I got womb cancer was that I have Lynch Syndrome. A brief recap: LS carriers have a genetic fault which increases their risk of certain cancers. Read more here.
The reason I say one reason is that having LS doesn’t mean you will definitely get womb cancer. Having LS increases the risk by 40-60% which is why I always say your lifestyle is important. To put this in perspective, the risk in general is 3%.
According to Cancer Research UK women whose mothers have had womb cancer have double the risk of getting it themselves. Cancer.org also says that families with high rate of womb cancer only (compared to a history of colorectal and womb cancers) may have a genetic disorder that hasn’t been found yet.
Your weight is a risk factor you can control. This is not always easy. I am a case in point. I am better nowadays, although still somewhat overweight. Since my teenage years when I was very fit (I played ice-hockey and enjoyed running) my weight has had a tendency to go up and down and mostly up. Following the cancer diagnosis, I have worked harder to get – and keep – the weight down.
Women who are obese are 2.5 times more likely to get womb cancer compared to women within the healthy weight range. A study Cancer Research UK published in 2011 showed that overweight causes about a third of womb cancers per year in the UK.
Further reasons why overweight increases the chances of womb cancer are linked to estrogen and insulin, more of which below.
Hormonal Risk Factors
The balance between estrogen and progesterone is another factor in developing womb cancer. The changes in these hormones are behind periods and help to keep the endometrium healthy. When there is an imbalance with more estrogen, a woman’s risk of endometrial (the other name for womb cancer) is increased.
The ovaries stop making estrogen after menopause, which is estrogen is the major part of hormone therapy used to treat menopausal symptoms like hot flushes and weakening of the bones. However, if a woman still has her uterus after menopause, estrogen therapy alone can lead to womb cancer.
Women who take progesterone together with estrogen do not have a higher risk of womb cancer. The bad news is that this combination increases the chances of developing breast cancer and serious blood clots. Menopause is far from a joy ride whether you suffer the symptoms or treat them with hormones!
Other hormone related factors (some of them positive)
- Birth control pills – using them lowers the risk of womb cancer. Women who take it for a long time have the lowest risk, but the protection lasts for ten years or even longer after a woman comes off the pill. I used the pill probably about five years. Makes me wonder if I had developed womb cancer even sooner, had I not taken the pill at all. Another thing we shall never know.
- Number of menstrual cycles – the more menstrual cycles a woman has, the higher her risk of womb cancer. An early onset of periods and late menopause increases the risk. However, if you started periods at a young age, but had menopause early, too, then the factor does not increase as much. Same goes for late start and late menopause. What matters most is the total number of cycles over the years.
- Pregnancy – many pregnancies help to protect against womb cancer because there is more progesterone during pregnancy. This means that those who chose not to have children have a higher risk. It is even higher for women unable to get pregnant. Highly unfair if you ask me!
- Tamoxifen – this drug is used to prevent and treat breast cancer. While it acts as an anti-estrogen in breast tissue, it acts like estrogen in the uterus. However, the risk is low and can be managed further by yearly visits to the gynaecologist.
Diet, Alcohol, and Exercise
A diet high in fat can increase the risk of womb cancer and other cancers. The main reason for that is that high-fat, high-calorie diet can lead to being overweight, which is a known to increase the chances of developing womb cancer. Some researchers have also linked foods high in fat to the body’s use of estrogen.
Interestingly, some studies have linked drinking coffee to a reduced womb cancer risk. I have never drank coffee. Maybe I should have. Although the evidence is not very strong.
When it comes to alcohol, studies have not shown a direct link between alcohol consumption and womb cancer. We should remember, though, that alcohol is linked to many other types of cancer and drinking in excess is detrimental to our health in other ways, too. I’m still going to enjoy a few pints here or a glass or two of wine there.
Studies have shown that women who do regular exercise, have a lower risk of developing womb cancer. Before my diagnosis, I was not doing much regular exercise (read that as not at all). I tried to pick up running again, but it wasn’t happening. The fact that my periods were getting longer and heavier didn’t help in the last 18 months or so, but before that I had no other excuse than laziness.
Regular exercise can also reduce the risk of other cancers and, of course, helps to maintain a healthy weight. Additionally, physical activity helps to control hormones such as oestrogen and insulin.
Various studies have indicated a connection between womb cancer and diabetes. Some studies have shown that womb cancer might be around twice as common in women with type 2 diabetes. However, it may be because diabetes is more common in less active and overweight people. There needs to be more research to find a clear link.
Other Risk Factors
- Thickened womb lining (endometrial hyperplasia) itself is non-cancerous. However, it increases the risk of womb cancer, especially if there are abnormalities in the extra lining. Symptoms include heavy periods, bleeding between periods or bleeding after menopause.
- PCOS stands for polycystic ovary syndrome, which causes hormonal imbalance. Women with PCOS have more chance of developing womb cancer, likely because of the hormone imbalance.
- Previous cancers – women who have had breast or ovarian cancer have a slightly increased risk of developing womb cancer.
- Previous radiation therapy to the pelvic area can increase the risk because radiation can damage the DNA of cells.
Before I go, an important reminder. It is important to know the risk factors. However…
Having a risk factor or even several does not mean you will definitely get cancer.
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Until next time.
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