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Several cups of coffee a day may keep endometrial cancer away, but not if it is decaf, according to a newly released study from Britain.

About half of the 3,700 cases of endometrial cancer striking women in the United Kingdom, and about half of the cases of this cancer of the lining of the womb that strikes over 40,000 women per year in the United States, might be prevented, scientists at the Mayo Clinic say, just be drinking coffee.

Women who drink more than 2-1/2 cups (600 ml) of coffee per day got a protective benefit from drinking coffee. Only regular coffee, the kind that contains caffeine, protects against any kind of cancer. The most recent study builds on a much larger study of risk factors for endometrial cancer involving American women, released in 2010.

What Is Endometrial Cancer?

Endometrial cancer, or endometrial carcinoma, is a kind of cancer that originates in the lining of uterus.

In the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, it is often called "womb cancer," but in the United States and Canada the usual term is "endometrial cancer." Endometrial cancer only occurs in women.

What Is the Relationship Between Cancer and Coffee?

This and an earlier study sponsored by the Mayo Clinic found that regular consumption of methylxanthines, a group of coffee chemicals that includes caffeine, reduces the risk of endometrial cancer. Caffeine is a potent antioxidant, and coffee is the single largest source of antioxidants in the American diet. In Britain, more antioxidants are usually obtained from tea, which does not have the same anti-cancer effect for women.

Coffee is protective against Type I endometrial cancer, the kind of endometrial cancer that occurs before menopause and is associated with increased exposure to estrogen.

It is not protective against Type II endometrial cancer, which occurs after menopause and is not associated with increased exposure to estrogen.

Are There Other Factors Women Can Control to Reduce the Risk of Endometrial Cancer?

The recent British study found that benefits of exercise are significant starting at about 38 minutes per day, or 3-1/2 hours per week. This can be light exercise, such as walking.

This and many other studies found that women have a lower risk of endometrial cancer if they are not seriously overweight. Coffee, however, has an even greater protective effect than exercise.

How Much Does Drinking Coffee Lower Cancer Risk?

The maximum benefits of coffee occur at 4 cups per day. Among British women, drinking this much coffee per day is associated with an 11 to 53% reduction in cancer risk, but only in women who had a body mass index under 30. Obesity canceled out the benefits of drinking coffee, although it may still be better for obese women to drink coffee (just without the sugar, cream, and sprinkles, because of the excess calories) than not.

What About the Caffeine in Cola, Chocolate, and Tea?

Neither this study nor a study of American women by the same researchers found that consuming more of other common sources of caffeine made a difference in preventing endometrial cancer. Cola, chocolate, and tea are not protective against this form of cancer. They have other benefits, however.

Which Women Are Most at Risk for Uterine Cancer?

Women who have high estrogen exposure are at greater risk for this kind of cancer. These are generally women who have a late menopause, women who are obese, because fat cells generate estrogen, and some women who have taken massive amounts of estrogen for fertility problems or whose bodies produce unusually large amounts of estrogen. In the United States, Black women are more likely to die of the disease than women in other racial groups.

Uterine cancer is usually treatable.

The symptoms of uterine cancer include:

  • Abnormal bleeding, especially after the age of 35 but before menopause.
  • Increase in discharge.
  • Changes in urinary habits.
  • Pelvic pain or cramping.

If any of these symptoms persists, see a doctor.

  • Uccella S, Mariani A, Wang AH, Vierkant RA, Cliby WA, Robien K, Anderson KE, Cerhan JR. Intake of coffee, caffeine and other methylxanthines and risk of Type I vs Type II endometrial cancer. Br J Cancer. 2013 Sep 10. doi: 10.1038/bjc.2013.540.
  • Photo courtesy of Michael Ransburg on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/michaelransburg/4507999629

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