PBS News Anchor Gwen Ifill Dies of Uterine Cancer

Peabody award-winning journalist Gwen Ifill, 61, has died. According to her brother Roberto, the PBS Newshour anchor died in hospice of uterine cancer.

Ifill covered the White House, Congress and national campaigns during three decades for The Washington Post, The New York Times, and more recently for PBS. She was the moderator for two Vice Presidental debates, in 2004 and 2008, and moderated a debate between Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in

Along with Judy Woodruff, Ifill became the first all-female anchor team on network nightly news in August 2013.

U.S. President Barack Obama extended his condolences to Ifill’s family and stated that he “always appreciated [her] reporting even when [he] was at the receiving end of one of her tough interviews.”[51] Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, in expressing his condolences, described Ifill as “an incredibly talented and respected journalist.”

For basic information about uterine cancer, see our story about Camille Grammer.

Endometrial Cancer in African American Women

Endometrial cancer is both the most common type of uterine cancer and the most common cancer of the female reproductive system. It accounts for approximately 6 percent of all cancers in women in the United States. Since 2002, overall incidence rates have not changed significantly, but mortality rates have been slowly rising since 2001. Although the incidence rate of endometrial cancer is only slightly higher in African American women than in whites, the mortality rate of African American women is nearly twice as high as that of all other racial/ethnic groups.

According the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program of the National Cancer Institute, the incidence of endometrial cancer is fairly similar for black and white women, with slightly lower incidences for Asian and Hispanic women.

Number of New Cases per 100,000 Persons by Race/Ethnicity: Endometrial Cancer

endometrial cancer incidence

However, if you look at the mortality statistics there is quite a different picture:

Number of Deaths per 100,000 Persons by Race/Ethnicity: Endometrial Cancer


African-American women have a mortality rate approximately 80% greater than for white women. This is even greater when compared with Asian and Hispanic women. Five-year survival rates are 64% for non-Hispanic black women vs. 86% for non-Hispanic white women.

What accounts for these differences?

There may be many factors. Among these could include:

  • Increased racial, cultural, and socioeconomic barriers to healthcare
  • Higher incidences of co-existing diseases, such as diabetes and obesity, in the African-American population
  • Differences in the type of tumor at diagnosis or tumor markers found on that tumor
  • Women of color women are less likely to have access to good medical treatment and visit oncologists
  • In comparison to white women, women of color are less likely to be tested for genetic mutations.  This is true even though they are at greater risk than white woman for particular genetic mutations, such as BRCA.

A study by Dr. Michele Cote, an associate professor of oncology at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute and Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, looked at a number of these factors. In the results, in the AACR publication Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, Dr. Cote found that socioeconomic factors may not be as important, saying:

“It was somewhat surprising that the endometrial cancer survival disparity we identified was limited to non-Hispanic black women because many of the challenges previously linked to worse outcomes, including low socioeconomic status and high rates of obesity and diabetes, are also experienced by Hispanic women, but that population did not have poor outcomes.”

African-American women have a lower incidence of the types of endometrial cancers known to have a better prognosis. They are more likely to be diagnosed with aggressive tumor types (called non-endometrioid.  Non -endometriod tumors include serous carcinomas, clear-cell carcinomas and carcinosarcomas. The aggressiveness of these tumors may also account for the fact they are more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage.

Is it in the genes?

In recent years, an analysis of genetic makeup of endometrial cancer cells has found a number of genetic mutations. One mutation, in the TP53 tumor suppressor gene, is associated with a poorer outcome. It is present twice as often in the tumors of African-American patients than white patients.

Another tumor mutation, called HER-2 (or human epidermal growth factor receptor 2), is over-expressed more frequently in African-American women with endometrial cancer.

The Role of Lynch Syndrome in Uterine Cancer

Since March of 2014, The Society of Gynecologic Oncology has recommended that all women diagnosed with endometrial cancer undergo genetic testing for Lynch syndrome, a hereditary cancer syndrome. Approximately 3-5% of endometrial cancers are caused by Lynch syndrome.  These women have mutations in genes which repair errors in DNA: MLH1, MSH2, MSH6, PMS2. Patients with Lynch syndrome have a 40-60% lifetime risk for endometrial and colon cancer, as well as various other cancers. (https://www.sgo.org/clinical-practice/guidelines/screening-for-lynch-syndrome-in-endometrial-cancer/) It is recommended that patients ask their doctors for a referral to a certified genetic counselor to assess their risk. Each child of a Lynch syndrome carrier has a 50% chance of inheriting Lynch syndrome and therefore is at high risk for developing cancer prior to the age of 50. Understanding your mutation, your risks, and being vigilant with your screenings can possibly save your life.

We thank Georgia Hurst, Founder and Executive Director of I Have Lynch Syndrome, for her valuable contributions to this article.  You can follow Georgia on Twitter @ShewithLynch.

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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