A new study out this month took data from 17 studies being conducted by the researchers who are part of the Epidemiology of Endometrial Cancer Consortium. It found that women who breastfeed at least six months have a decreased risk of the type of uterine cancer that is in the lining of the uterus called the endometrium.
The studies considered 8,981 women with endometrial cancer and 17,241 women in a control group. Those who breastfed six months or more had an 11 percent reduction in risk of endometrial cancer. It mattered that you hit the six month marker to get the benefits, but the benefits didn’t increase with each additional month.
We talked with Dr. Angela Kueck, gynecologic oncologist with St. David’s North Austin Medical Center and Texas Oncology, about this study and what it means to women.
“It just adds to understanding of the benefits of breastfeeding for Mom,” Kueck says. We already knew that breastfeeding has been linked to lower risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer, she says. Now we can say it’s also good for preventing endometrial cancer as well, she says.
Why is that? With all of these, the thought is that breastfeeding limits the amount of estrogen released. “Your ovaries are quiet,” Kueck explains. We know that estrogen exposure is the biggest risk factor for these cancers, Kueck says.
Endometrial cancer is the fourth most common cancer for women, Kueck says. In Texas, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be 3,890 new cases of endometrial cancer this year and 650 deaths.
It’s also a cancer that doesn’t have a screening test. A lot of people think that getting a pap smear screens for it, but that only screens for cervical cancer, Kueck says.
What are the signs?
- Bleeding or discharge after menopause or if you’re younger, bleeding or discharge between periods.
- Heavy bleeding during a period
- Usually there’s not pain associated with it, but there can be
- Sometimes frequency to urinate
What are the risk factors?
The biggest risk factor is obesity because women who are obese release more estrogen, Kueck says. Heredity also plays a factor. If you’ve had a close relative with a uterine cancer or colon cancer or prostate cancer (because those are all linked), you should watch for irregular bleeding or discharge.
How is it diagnosed?
Doctors do a biopsy, often in the office, using an endometrial pipelle, that is very sensitive and gets a pretty thorough sampling of the lining.
What is the treatment?
It’s a hysterectomy, and typically, that’s all. If the cancer has spread beyond the endometrium, then it could require radiation or chemotherapy.
What is the cure rate?
If it’s caught early, meaning it hasn’t spread beyond the endometrium, “it’s one of the more curable cancers,” Kueck says, with a 90 percent cure rate. As it spreads, the cure rate goes down to as low as 15 percent.