Unfortunately, something went terribly wrong for Gwen Ifill. Although I am not aware of the specific type of endometrial cancer she had I know the vast majority are highly curable. In fact, cure rates are close to 90% when it is caught early, as it should be. As a quadruple board certified integrative gynecologic oncologist, I want to share my insights with you and hope that these may save your life or the life of a loved one.
Relatively Common, Often Preventable & Mostly Curable
Endometrial cancer is the most common gynecologic cancer with approximately 60,000 new cases per year diagnosed in the United States. There are roughly 10,000 deaths per year and these are mostly due to the rarer more aggressive types of uterine cancer or from a late diagnosis. The average age at diagnosis is 60 but it can occur as early as 35 years of age.
The good news is that endometrial cancer most often does not grow like wildfire. It arises from the lining of the womb and is usually caused, at least is part, by excess estrogen in your system. The source of estrogen varies but is largely under your control. In the premenopausal years it can be due to obesity because your fat cells convert other hormones into estrogen. The more fat cells you have, the more estrogen there is to bombard the endometrial lining.
Obesity can cause endometrial cancer in postmenopausal years as well but estrogen replacement therapy can also do this. While we have moved away from prescribing estrogen to all postmenopausal women, many still choose to use it for many reasons. Most often this is to help with hot flashes, mood swings and other menopausal symptoms, which may last for a few years or much longer.
If you have a uterus, meaning it has not been removed for other reasons, any treatment with estrogen must include the balancing hormone progesterone. This is crucial whether the treatment uses prescription synthetic estrogen or compounded bio-identical “natural” estrogen. Contrary to popular belief, natural estrogens are simply not safer if they are also not balanced.
The second piece of good news is that endometrial cancer does not jump rapidly from normal cells to cancer cells like many other malignancies. Fortunately, the vast majority develop first into an overgrowth or piling up of normal endometrial cells, this progresses to more atypical cells appearing, then to pre-cancer and finally to cancer. This process can take years and at any point, abnormal bleeding can occur.
Pay Attention To Your Body
The key takeaway is to not ignore abnormal bleeding. Whether it is troublesome bleeding between periods or excessive periods in your forties or even a spot of blood in the postmenopausal years it is CRITICAL to get checked. Most often bleeding is actually not due to cancer. However, since this malignancy takes a while to get to a life threatening stage every opportunity to get it in a pre-cancerous or early cancer stage can save your life.
Unfortunately, many of us, especially busy folks, are afraid of what may lie in store if cancer is diagnosed. Just the fear of cancer can lead one to ignore early symptoms. Also, life’s pressures and careers fool us into putting off symptoms that just don’t seem important. Partly, this is because many think that recovery from cancer treatment can be prolonged, interfering with our livelihood and ongoing career responsibilities.
21st Century Treatment: More Personal, Better, Simpler, Faster
Fortunately, treatment of endometrial pre-cancer may be a simple hormonal prescription. For an early endometrial cancer the most effective treatment is surgery, which includes a hysterectomy and possible biopsies of lymph nodes to determine if the cancer has spread. This sounds very foreboding but today’s surgery is getting closer to "Star Trek" levels than many realize. Robotically-assisted minimally invasive “keyhole” surgery, one of my specialties, is an outpatient procedure in most cases. You can often be back at work or your daily routine within two weeks or sooner, as long as heavy lifting is not involved.
Some uterine cancers from the endometrial lining or the fiber-muscle part of the uterus can be more aggressive. However, even in this case, earlier diagnosis gives the best chance for beating cancer.
Gynecologic oncology specialists are the physicians you should consult in the event of any endometrial cancer diagnosis, especially the more aggressive forms. Even in the case of pre-cancer, a second opinion with a board certified (or board eligible, meaning they have completed specialty fellowship training) gynecologic oncologist may be a very good idea because many pre-cancer biopsy results can miss coexisting cancer. In that case, the wrong treatment may be applied and an opportunity for cure missed.
More aggressive endometrial cancer, or those which were simply diagnosed later than they should have been, often require treatment beyond surgery. This can include radiation therapy and possible chemotherapy. While this can be terrifying, a cure is still possible in many cases. Also, research is now heading rapidly towards treatments that are based on gene alterations which can be directly influenced by precision medicine biological agents rather than chemotherapy. If you are diagnosed with an aggressive or late endometrial cancer, this is something to explore as it may save your life or at least extend your life (with a good quality of life).
While gene alterations can be present, these are not usually inherited in this type of cancer. This means you are still largely in control in the case of endometrial cancer prevention and early diagnosis. These gene alterations usually occur by mutation, which can be related to lifestyle choices and the environment, which includes what you eat and drink. Obesity and its coexisting diseases of hypertension and diabetes strongly affect how your genes will behave. Using diet, exercise, selected supplements like vitamin D, and stress reduction through mind-body techniques, you can significantly cancer-proof your body. This is not always possible with many cancers, but it is a very real consideration in this one.
There is much more to this story which may have saved Gwen Ifill's life. However, even these basics can be lifesavers for most, starting with prevention and early detection. Once diagnosed, cancer is best defeated by a personalized treatment plan including robotic surgery, cutting edge therapies, and integrative natural and complementary strategies that influence lifestyle choices to improve quality of life into survivorship. This reflects my patient-centered holistic integrative approach which I think will become the new standard. In fact, these are common topics on my blog and in my book, Cancer Cureology: The Ultimate Survivor's Holistic Guide to Integrative Natural Anti-Cancer Answers: The Science and Truth, which will be available December 1st 2016.
7 Tips To Reduce Risk of Dying From Endometrial Cancer
The following tips can help drastically reduce your risk of dying from endometrial cancer:
1. Maintain a healthy weight and reduce body fat as much as possible through good exercise and dietary habits. The most anti-cancer diet on the planet is a whole food plant based diet, but the Mediterranean diet is also cancer preventive.
2. Listen to your body. Any abnormal vaginal bleeding or even discharge can be a sign of trouble. This includes even a spot of blood in the postmenopausal years.
3. Never take unopposed estrogen of any type at any point in your life if you have a uterus. This includes prescription estrogens as well as compounded bio-identical natural estrogens.
4. Do not be afraid of the treatment. The earlier the diagnosis, the easier it is. If it is pre-cancer, non-surgical hormonal therapy works well. If it is cancer, robotically-assisted minimally invasive “keyhole” surgery will have you back on track in no time.
5. Seek out a board certified or board eligible gynecologic oncologist for treatment. They have the best surgical and non-surgical options to improve your chances of beating this and any other gynecologic cancer.
6. If you are diagnosed with advanced or an unusually more aggressive type of uterine cancer, please seek out a research oriented institution closest to you. This is usually but not always a university center. They may have more advanced and ground breaking genomics-based and other precision-medicine treatments available which can eliminate chemotherapy in the near future.
7. If you are a survivor, then it is important to do everything you can to help proactively avert a recurrence. This is possible through lifestyle modifications like diet, key supplements, targeted exercise and attention to stress reduction through mind-body techniques, of which there are many.
I extend my sincerest condolences to Gwen Ifill's family, friends and fans. At 61 years young, Ms. Ifill was a broadcasting pioneer and legend at the peak of her career. I hope this story and information brings awareness to help save people’s lives.