Endometrial cancer (uterine lining cancer) is the fourth most common cancer in women and the most common gynecologic malignancy. Now it appears that that those super sweet sugary drinks may be one culprit that dramatically increases the risk. A study published in Cancer, Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention showed that uterine cancer occurred almost 80% more often in postmenopausal women who consumed four or more servings of sugar-sweetened drinks as compared with women who consumed none.
Most uterine cancers occur because there is a hormonal imbalance that results in an abnormal buildup in the cavity of the uterus. In a normal menstrual cycle, women produce estrogen, which thickens the uterine lining. Ovulation, or the monthly release of an egg, triggers the production of progesterone, which prevents the uterine lining from getting too thick. If someone isn’t ovulating, the lining of the uterus gets blasted with estrogen but without the progesterone to balance it out, the potential for cancerous changes increases.
Fat cells produce extra estrogen, which is why obesity is one of the primary reasons endometrial cancer rates are increasing in the US. Women who are overweight are more than three times as likely to get endometrial cancer.
While obesity has been a known risk factor for years, the association with sugary drinks is new. What’s interesting is that the increase in uterine cancer associated with sugary drinks occurred even in thin women, so it appears that their may be something about these sugary drinks, other than packing on the pounds, that escalates risk.
Obesity (and sugary drinks!) are not the only risk factors. Anything that throws off the estrogen/progesterone balance can cause abnormal cells to develop. As one example, it has been known since the 1970s that taking estrogen therapy without adequate progestin increases the risk of uterine cancer almost ten fold. If you are taking estrogen for relief of menopausal symptoms (and have a uterus), it is crucial to take an appropriate progestin to protect the lining of the uterus. Compounded progestin creams have not been shown to offer adequate protection. The progestin molecule is too large to be absorbed through the skin, which is why all the FDA approved progestins are in pill form.
Perimenopausal women who no longer ovulate are also at risk since they are prone to a thick build up in the uterine lining.
In addition, some women are at increased risk due to a genetic mutation, known as Lynch Syndrome. Families with a Lynch mutation are not only at risk for colon and stomach cancer, but also have a 27-71 percent chance of developing uterine cancer as opposed to the 3 percent in the general population.
So eliminate the sugary drinks, lose the weight, talk to your relatives and most important, never ignore irregular periods, heavy bleeding or constant spotting. Any bleeding in a postmenopausal woman should be evaluated. Uterine cancer is potentially preventable cancer and being “The number 1 gynecologic cancer” is a distinction that is no honor.
Originally Published Nov 23, 2013, EveryDay Health