A fibroid is a benign (non-cancerous) tumor or growth that occurs in the uterus. It’s often common in women and can cause symptoms like heavy bleeding, abdominal pain, and more. But besides being a common condition today, it’s also often misunderstood, with most women wondering, can fibroids be cancerous?

In today’s article, you’ll understand everything you need to know about fibroids, including what they are, their causes, symptoms, treatments, and whether they can become cancerous.

See, Can Stress Cause Cancer and Breast Cancer and Smoking

What are fibroids?

Fibroids, also known as myomas or leiomyomas, are non-cancerous growths arising from the fibrous and smooth muscle tissues in the uterus.

Ninety percent of fibroids occur on the upper segment of the uterus. Others may occur in the vulva, the broad ligament (the layer of tissue connecting the sides of the uterus to the walls and floor of the pelvis), fallopian tubes, and sometimes the small intestines.

They often occur during child-bearing years but can also occur at any other age.

Fibroids can grow as a single nodule or a cluster consisting of several nodules. Cluster sizes can range from 1mm to more than 20cm.

Myomas are entirely harmless unless they grow out of control and start to show symptoms. Most don’t show symptoms and don’t require treatment. 

According to t research, 75-80 percent of women will be diagnosed with fibroids at some point in their lives, while 20 percent of all women have one or more present at death.

surgeon removed fibroid

Can Fibroids be Cancerous?

While fibroids are often termed tumors, and people know tumors to be cancerous, not all tumors are, and fibroids are one of them. Also, they cannot increase your risk of developing cancer.

In some rare cases, a doctor may discover that the mass, which seemed like a fibroid initially, was actually uterine sarcoma, a type of cancer.

Research has found that 1 in every 225 women whose fibroids were surgically treated. I.e., by having the fibroids or uterus removed, were later found to have uterine sarcoma.

Another study to evaluate sarcomas in patients admitted for uterine fibroid surgery found that 1 in 2269 (0.044%) of the patients that underwent hysterectomies and myomectomies had unsuspected uterine sarcomas.

Even with the low incidences of cancer, you should always go for a checkup if you think your fibroids are rapidly growing, especially after menopause, when they should be shrinking.

What Causes Fibroids

The clear cause of fibroids is not known, but scientists believe it has something to do with genetic abnormalities, including:

  • Chromosomal deletion

According to one review, several studies done on uterine fibroids show a close correlation between the deletions on chromosome 7q and uterine fibroids.

  • Chromosomal translocation

Apart from deletion, chromosomal rearrangements can disrupt gene structure leading to the development of fibroids.

  • Chromosomal insertion

This occurs when a segment of one chromosome is translocated and inserted into another part of the same chromosome or into an interstitial region of a different chromosome.

Common Risk Factors for Developing Fibroids

Many possible factors may increase your risk of developing fibroids, including:

1. Women with low parity

Parity refers to the number of pregnancies the woman has carried past 20 weeks gestation.

According to the World Health Organization, low parity refers to less than 5 pregnancies with more than 20 weeks gestation periods each.

So women with low parity, for example, nuns, are at a higher risk of developing uterine fibroids. This means a high parity is better, but why?

Experts believe this is due to the protective effect of postpartum uterine involution. Uterine involution is the natural process involving the uterus returning to its pre-pregnancy state.

This process begins after the delivery of the baby and the placenta and lasts for about six weeks. During this period, one may experience some cramps as the uterus tissues contract and remodel to return to their normal size.

Small fibroids are often expelled during this period, and with repeated pregnancies, the fibroids have no chance to grow.

2.  Family history

If you have a close relative such as a sister, mother, or grandmother with a history of fibroids, your chances of developing are high than someone without a positive family history. 

3. Obesity

Women that are overweight or obese are at a greater risk of developing fibroids because of high estrogen levels. Too much estrogen has been shown to increase the risk of developing fibroids by promoting fibroid cell proliferation.

Being overweight or obese also increases your risk of other health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and some types of cancer. In this case, losing weight should be your fast strategy for preventing fibroids.

4. African American

Research shows that African American women are at a higher risk of developing fibroids than women from other ethnic backgrounds.

Although the explanation behind this is unclear, one theory is that African American women have higher estrogen levels than white women, and high estrogen is strongly linked to fibroids.

In fact, African-Americans are up to 3 times more likely to develop fibroids than women from other ethnicities. 

In one comparative study, African-American women had high levels of estrogen during their menstrual cycles than Caucasian women.

Another explanation is that African-Americans are at a higher risk of developing insulin resistance, a great cause of obesity, and another risk factor for developing fibroids.

5. Vitamin D deficiency

Vitamin D is an essential fat-soluble vitamin needed for various functions, including strengthening bones by regulating calcium and phosphorus, the two important minerals for strong bones and teeth.

Additionally, vitamin D is needed for cell proliferation and differentiation, which means it can help maintain healthy tissues, including those lining the uterus. It does this by regulating healthy cell division and growth. 

With that in mind, a deficiency can increase your risk of developing fibroids.

In one study, 69 patients with fibroids and vitamin D deficiency were given 50,000 IU of vitamin D supplement every 2 weeks for 10 weeks. At the end of the study, their tumor size had significantly reduced compared to the placebo group.

6. Some food additives

Most foods people consider good for consumption today are high in synthetic additives and preservatives that can disrupt normal hormone function, causing conditions like fibroids to develop.

For example, Bisphenol A (BPA), an industrial chemical used to manufacture some plastics and line some processed food packaging, can disrupt the endocrine causing hormonal imbalances that may cause fibroids. 

One human study found that exposure to this chemical may induce emotionally responsive tumors like fibroids.

Another animal study also found that the chemical increased the proliferation of uterine fibroid cells.

Other chemicals that can disrupt your endocrine system include artificial sweeteners and nitrates, often used to preserve processed meats.

Symptoms of Uterine Fibroids

As I mentioned, most fibroids are asymptomatic, meaning they do not show symptoms and may not require any treatment. You, however, may need regular observation by your healthcare provider.

On the other hand, some fibroids can grow out of control, and these often present with a series of symptoms, including

  • Heavy, excessive, and painful bleeding during menstruation
  • Bleeding between your periods
  • Anemia
  • Infertility
  • Constipation
  • A feeling of fullness in your lower abdomen
  • Low back pain
  • Painful intercourse
  • Increased abdominal distention(some women might look pregnant)
  • Incomplete bladder emptying or inability to empty
  • Weight loss
  • Frequency urination (occurs when the fibroids exert pressure on the bladder)

Can small fibroids grow and cause symptoms?

Fibroids are estrogen-dependent, which means they respond to estrogen levels in the body. If levels are high, such as during pregnancy, and you are at risk, for example, if you have a positive family history, then fibroids can develop and grow.

If you have fibroids before pregnancy, it’s good to be closely monitored to see how they behave throughout the whole pregnancy.

Just like an increase in estrogen fuels the fibroids to grow, a drop will cause them to shrink. A good example is during menopause, the ovaries have seized to produce the hormone. That’s why symptoms may also improve as someone approaches menopause.

How Are Fibroids Diagnosed?

Fibroids are often found incidentally during a routine pelvic exam or during imaging for a different condition.

During the pelvic exam, your doctor or gynecologist will use their hand to palpate your lower abdomen or the pelvic region. If you have fibroids, they’ll feel some irregularities and mass-like lumps under the skin. 

They may then send you for a pelvic ultrasound. Ultrasound is the safest and most reliable method to diagnose fibroids. This procedure is painless and uses no radiation.

Instead, it uses an ultrasound probe (often placed on your abdomen or inside the vagina) to produce high-frequency sound waves that create images of the pelvic region.

In some cases, a more advanced imaging taste, like an MRI, may be required. 

This gives a detailed view of the fibroids, including the number, size, and exact location.

MRI may also help detect other conditions that may initially seem like fibroids, such as cancerous tumors.

If, to this point, the results are still inconclusive, more investigations may be required. But in most cases, the above two tastes are sufficient to make a diagnosis.

Treatment Options for Fibroids

There are several conventional treatment options for fibroids, but this will often depend on the stage of the fibroids, the severity of the symptoms, and the age. 

They include:

I. Medications

Some medications can help relieve the symptoms. For example, if you’re experiencing heavy bleeding, medications may help. On the other hand, if the fibroids are big and presenting with pressure symptoms, surgery might be more beneficial.

ii. Intrauterine device (IUCD)

A hormonal IUCD can stop your womb lining from building up, which may help lower the amount of blood flow during menstruation and prevent anemia. IUCD will, however, not reduce the side of the fibroids and may not improve symptoms like pain and cramps.

That being said, hormonal IUCD may result in some side effects, such as mood swings, acne, breast tenderness, and spotting.

iii. Birth control pills: Progestin-only pills and combination pills

Birth control pills either contain progestin N(mini pill) or a combination of hormones estrogen and progestin (combination pill). These are more beneficial in women with heavy bleeding as they can slow menstrual blood flow.

With time, uninterrupted, continued use of combined pills may cause a complete cessation of menstrual periods.

iv. GnRH analogs

These are artificial hormones that inhibit the production of estrogen in the ovaries. 

They are offered as an injection to the skin or muscles once a month, a slow-release injection lasting for 3 months, and a nasal spray used daily.

These hormones work by temporarily slowing the growth of the tumor or shrinking its size, which may reduce menstrual bleeding and pain.

This method is often used for less than 6 months to allow the tumor to shrink before a surgical procedure can be done.

Long-term use of GnRH analogs is not recommended as they can increase the risk for osteoporosis.

v. Surgery

In severe cases, surgery may be the only option. In some cases, the fibroids are removed while preserving the uterus (myomectomy); in others, even the uterus is removed (hysterectomy).

vi. Uterine Fibroid embolization (UFE)

Uterine fibroid embolization is a minimally invasive procedure to shrink the fibroids by blocking blood flow to the tumor. It’s a great alternative to major surgeries like hysterectomy and myomectomy.

What can you do to improve the condition or lower your risk?

Maintain a healthy weight

Patients with fibroids are often encouraged to lose weight as a management strategy.

This is because fat cells make more estrogen, disrupting normal hormonal function and causing fibroids to grow more rapidly.

So your number one focus when dealing with fibroids is to ensure you’re keeping a moderate weight.

Eat a healthy diet

A diet rich in fresh fruits, fresh and cooked green vegetables, and legumes while avoiding food like red beet, including beef, ham, and lamb, dairy, among other animal products, can help lower your risk

One study found that increasing vitamin, A food sources can also prevent fibroids or limit their growth.

Exercise regularly

Exercising regularly has been shown to lower estrogen and progesterone, hormones that promote tumor growth, thus controlling your condition.

Exercise will also help maintain a healthy weight which supports an overall healthy body and mind.

Get enough vitamin D

Sufficient vitamin D levels can lower your risk of fibroids by up to 32 percent. While your body can easily make this vitamin through sun exposure, those living in cooler climates may require a supplement. Additional foods to boost your intake include nutritional yeast, mushrooms, and fortified foods.

Final Thoughts

Fibroids are noncancerous growths that appear in the uterus and other surrounding areas.
Some may be small without symptoms, while others can grow and cause symptoms like heavy bleeding, painful periods, constipation, weight loss, and urinary symptoms.

While women are generally prone to developing fibroids, some may be at a higher risk. This includes those with a positive family history, black Americans, too much weight, and low parity.

Some things you can do to lower your risk or improve your condition include maintaining a healthy weight, eating healthy, staying active, and getting enough vitamin D.

Nonetheless, if your fibroids grow, there are treatment options that can help you.

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  4. Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2023

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