While the incidence of most cancers is falling, endometrial cancer rates continue to rise, in large part because of increasing life expectancy and obesity rates. However, what is even more alarming is the observation that there is a clear disparity in outcomes between black and white women with this disease. But there are things that all health care providers, including nononcologists, can do to help to overcome this disparity.
Black women are nearly twice as likely as non-Hispanic white women to die from the endometrial cancer. The 5-year survival for stage III and IV cancer is 43% for non-Hispanic white women, yet only 25% for black women.1 For a long time, this survival disparity was assumed to be a function of the more aggressive cancer histologies, such as serous, which are more commonly seen in black women. These high-grade cancers are more likely to present in advanced stages and with poorer responses to treatments; however, the predisposition to aggressive cancers tells only part of the story of racial disparities in endometrial cancer and their presentation at later stages. Indeed, fueling the problem are the findings that black women report symptoms less, experience more delays in diagnosis or more frequent deviations from guideline-directed diagnostics, undergo more morbid surgical approaches, receive less surgical staging, are enrolled less in clinical trials, have lower socioeconomic status and lower rates of health insurance, and receive less differential administration of adjuvant therapies, as well as have a background of higher all-cause mortality and comorbidities. While this array of contributing factors may seem overwhelming, it also can be considered a guide for health care providers because most of these factors, unlike histologic cell type, are modifiable, and it is important that we all consider what role we can play in dismantling them.
Black women are less likely to receive guideline-recommended care upon presentation. Research by Kemi M. Doll, MD, from the University of Washington, Seattle, demonstrated that, among women with endometrial cancers, black women were less likely to have documented histories of postmenopausal bleeding within 2 years of the diagnosis, presumably because of factors related to underreporting and inadequate ascertainment by medical professionals of whether or not they had experienced postmenopausal bleeding.2 Additionally, when postmenopausal bleeding was reported by these women, they were less likely to receive the appropriate diagnostic work-up as described by American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists guidelines, and their bleeding was more likely to be ascribed to nonmalignant pathologies. Her work raises the important question about how black women view the health care profession and their willingness to engage early in good faith that their concerns will be met. These concerns are understandable given the documented different responsiveness of providers to black patients’ symptoms such as pain.3
both of which are considered the standard of care.1,4 Lower rates of minimally invasive surgery expose black women to increased morbidity and are deleterious to quality of life, return to work, and functionality. If surgical staging is omitted, which is more common for these women, clinicians are less able to appropriately prescribe adjuvant therapies which might prevent lethal recurrences from unrecognized advanced cancer or they may overtreat early-stage cancers with adjuvant therapy to make up for gaps in staging information.1,5 However, adjuvant therapy is not a benign intervention, and itself is associated with morbidity.
As mentioned earlier, black women are at a higher risk for developing more aggressive cancer subtypes, and this phenomenon may appear unmodifiable. However, important research is looking at the concept of epigenetics and how modifiable environmental factors may contribute to the development of more aggressive types of cancer through gene expression. Additionally, differences in the gene mutations and gene expression of cancers more frequently acquired by black women may negatively influence how these cancers respond to conventional therapies. In the GOG210 study, which evaluated the outcomes of women with comprehensively staged endometrial cancer, black women demonstrated worse survival from cancer, even though they were more likely to receive chemotherapy.5 One explanation for this finding is that these women’s cancers were less responsive to conventional chemotherapy agents.
This raises a critical issue of disparity in clinical trial inclusion. Black women are underrepresented in clinical trials in the United States. There is a dark history in medical research and minority populations, particularly African American populations, which continues to be remembered and felt. However, not all of this underrepresentation may be from unwillingness to participate: For black women, issues of lack of access to or being considered for clinical trials is also a factor. But without adequate representation in trials of novel agents, we will not know whether they are effective for all populations, and indeed it would appear that we should not assume they are equally effective based on the results to date.
So how can we all individually help to overcome these disparities in endometrial cancer outcomes? To begin with, it is important to acknowledge that black women commonly report negative experiences with reproductive health care. From early in their lives, we must sensitively engage all of our patients and ensure they all feel heard and valued. They should know that their symptoms, including pain or bleeding, are taken and treated seriously. If we can do better with this throughout a woman’s earlier reproductive health care experiences, perhaps later in her life, when she experiences postmenopausal bleeding, she will feel comfortable raising this issue with her health care provider who in turn must take this symptom seriously and expeditiously engage all of the appropriate diagnostic resources. Health care delivery is about more than simply offering the best treatment. We also are responsible for education and shared decision making to ensure that we can deliver the best treatment.
We also can support organizations such as ECANA (Endometrial Cancer Action Network for African Americans) which serves to inform black women in their communities about the threat that endometrial cancer plays and empowers them through education about its symptoms and the need to seek care.
Systematically we must ensure black women have access to the same standards in surgical and nonsurgical management of these cancers. This includes referral of all women with cancer, including minorities, to high-volume centers with oncology specialists and explaining to those who may be reluctant to travel that this is associated with improved outcomes in the short and long term. We also must actively consider our black patients for clinical trials, sensitively educate them about their benefits, and overcome barriers to access. One simple way to do this is to explain that the treatments that we have developed for endometrial cancer have mostly been tested on white women, which may explain in part why they do not work so well for nonwhite women.
The racial disparity in endometrial cancer outcomes cannot entirely be attributed to the passive phenomenon of patient and tumor genetics, particularly with consideration that race is a social construct rather than a biological phenomenon. We can all make a difference through advocacy, access, education, and heightened awareness to combat this inequity and overcome these disparate outcomes.
Dr. Rossi is assistant professor in the division of gynecologic oncology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She said she had no relevant financial disclosures. Email her at.