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Cancer news|Research update archive 2001

Every month, Judy Knapp, Ph.D., MSW, gynecologic social worker at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and board member, summarizes important research findings in gynecologic oncology.

2002-03  2001


December 2001: The relationship between dietary antioxidant intake and ovarian cancer risk

November 2001: Quality of life in women with gynecologic cancers

September 2001: The role of pap smears in women with hysterectomies

July 2001: The use of hCG in diagnosis and management of Gestational Trophoblastic Disease

June 2001: Research findings on cervical cancer from ASCO

May 2001: HRT risk with uterine cancer

 December 2001: The relationship between dietary antioxidant intake and ovarian cancer risk

In 1976, 121,700 registered nurses across the US began participating in a long-term epidemiological study of women’s health, the Nurses’ Health Study. Involvement in the study requires that the participants complete a mailed health information survey every six months throughout the rest of their lives. Data regarding food intake was initially collected starting in 1980, then broadened four years later with the inclusion of a 126 item food frequency questionnaire. Using this large database, Dr. Kathleen Fairfield and her colleagues from Harvard University examined prospectively the relationship between dietary intake of antioxidants and the risk of ovarian cancer.

Data from 80,326 participants were analyzed; of this group, there were 316 cases of ovarian cancer from 1980 through 1996. Statistical analysis controlled for known ovarian cancer risk factors such as age, body mass index, use of oral contraceptives, number of pregnancies, history of tubal ligation, lactation history, age at first menses, first birth and menopause, caffeine use, smoking history, and family history of ovarian cancer. Variables of interest were alcohol, total fat, fiber, folate, Vitamins E, C, and A, lutein, and retinol intake. Both food and dietary supplement sources of antioxidants were included in the study.

The researchers conclude that, based on their analyses of these data, there was no relationship between consumption of antioxidants and ovarian cancer risk. Additionally, there was no statistically significant association between the intake of specific vegetables or fruits and the risk of ovarian cancer, although women who reported 7 or more servings per week of green leafy vegetables were seen to have a 14% decrease in their risk. Of note, high levels of fruit and vegetable intake during adolescence, as reported by study participants in their adulthood, was associated with a 46% reduction in risk.

Cancer, Vol. 92, No. 9 (November 1, 2001), pages 2318 – 2326.

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 November 2001: Quality of life in women with gynecologic cancers

Quality of life is a key concept in cancer care, one that concerns both patients and their professional health care providers. Basically, it encompasses three separate components -- physical, psychological and social functioning. Physical functioning refers to both disease and treatment-related effects. Psychological well-being includes cognitive and emotional functioning, as well as spirituality. And social functioning encompasses capacity for leisure and work activities, social interaction and interpersonal relationships. Without question, there are many ways that each of these aspects of human functioning can be affected by the diagnosis and treatment of a gynecologic cancer.

A group of researchers in China studied the changes in quality of life of a group of 144 women over a period of 24 months from diagnosis. The average age of the women was 51 years of age. Over one-third of the group had cervix cancer, 30% had ovarian cancer, and 20% had cancer of the uterus. Treatment data showed that 46% had surgery, 29% had radiation treatment and 26% had chemotherapy.

Several factors were found to affect overall health status. Patients who had surgery demonstrated the highest global health rating, followed by those who had radiation, then those who received chemotherapy. Younger women, interestingly, showed lower overall health scores than did older women. Another notable finding was that quality of life prior to diagnosis was not related to subsequent quality of life, as reported by this group.

The bulk of impact on quality of life was seen in the first six months after the end of treatment. After that time point, scores on specific aspects of life quality, such as cognitive, emotional, social and physical function, stabilized. This was also the case for the global measure of health.

An abstract of the results of this study can be found at:

This paper was published in the journal Gynecologic Oncology, Volume 83.

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 September 2001: The role of pap smears in women with hysterectomies

The American Cancer Society’s guidelines indicate that women with a history of hysterectomy should continue to have screening done with routine Pap smears, regardless of the reason for the surgery. However, the US Preventive Services Task Force has recommended this screening only if the cervix was left in place or the diagnosis was cervical cancer. To examine this question, researchers at the Division of Cancer Prevention of the Center for Disease Control have taken information from surveys of American women and hospitals to characterize both the use of and the need for Pap smears in women who have undergone hysterectomies. According to their analyses, one in five women have had hysterectomy; of this group, almost 10% were due to a primary diagnosis of cervical cancer. Approximately 75% of all women were estimated to have had a Pap smear within the past three years. Following the US Preventive Task Force recommendation, only 7-15% of these women met the criteria for needing routine Pap testing.

One of the arguments for continuing this screening after hysterectomy for non-cancerous indications is the need to check for vaginal cancer or precancerous cell changes. However, Dr. Saraiya and her associates indicate that the incidence of vaginal cancer is very low for women with benign hysterectomy, and therefore does not justify the cost of the test in this group. According to this work, only women who had their hysterectomy for cervical cancer or those who did not have cancer, but still have a cervix, benefit from routine screening with Pap smears. Making this shift in patient and physician behaviors will allow greater efforts to be directed to screening women who have the greatest need – those who still have a uterus.

This paper appears in the August 2001 issue of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

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 July 2001: The use of hCG in diagnosis and management of Gestational Trophoblastic Disease

Human chorionic gonadatropin (hCG) is normally produced by women's bodies during pregnancy, and can be found in urine or blood samples. However, elevated levels of hCG can also indicate the possibility of gestational trophoblastic disease (GTD) or choriocarcinoma when pregnancy tissue is no longer present in the body. GTD occurs in women of child-bearing age, and is treated with chemotherapy and/or surgery. Treatment continues until the hCG level falls and consistently remains at a very low reading. Hence, both the initial diagnosis and ongoing treatment of GTD is based on this blood test.

Laurence Cole, PhD and his research associates published a study in The Lancet last year on the incidence of falsely elevated hCG levels in women being treated for GTD. Using a technique to block certain antibodies which can interfere with hCG testing, Dr. Cole identified 24 inaccurate hCG readings out of 60 samples tested at his facility, USA hCG Reference Service. From his research, it can be seen that the blood tests commonly used in the United States to assess hCG have a high rate of false positive readings.

A more complete discussion of this important topic can be found Dr. Cole's article reproduced by permission on the the Website or you can visit the site for Dr. Cole's laboratory at the University of New Mexico. Dr. Cole is a member of the Medical Advisory Panel for

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 June 2001: Gleanings about cervical cancer from the American Society of Clinical Oncology 2001 meeting

The annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncologists took place May 12 - May 15, 2001; included in this year's program were several presentations on cancer of the cervix. Here is an overview of some of the information to come out of this conference.

Diagnosis: In an effort to evaluate screening techniques for cervical cancer, researchers at Duke University compared three methods of obtaining Pap smears from the endocervix to see which was most sensitive to malignant changes, and found that the ThinPrep spatula and endocervical brush had the highest accuracy of both positive and negative results. The researchers indicate that adequate sampling of the endocervix is critical for diagnosis, particularly in adenocarcinoma.

Treatment: There is a growing body of research literature focused on the use of combination chemotherapy and radiation therapy for inoperable cervix cancer. Randomized clinical trials have been conducted by several national collaborative research groups showing that cisplatinum, alone or in combination with other drugs, has produced three-year survival rates of between 65 and 87%. In this form of treatment, low-dose chemotherapy is given once a week and radiation is given daily; investigators believe that chemotherapy acts to enhance radiation effects.

Recurrence: Ongoing research is also underway into the most effective chemotherapy drugs for recurrent or metastatic cervix cancer. Most large clinical trials now include a measurement of quality of life, so that a better understanding of the relationship between each treatment and the patients' perception of their well-being can become clearer. Ultimately, this information will help each woman make more fully informed treatment decisions.

Additional information from the conference proceedings is available at (free registration required).

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 May 2001: What are the risks of using hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after surgery for uterine cancer?

A recently published study by a group of researchers in California addressed this question that uterine cancer survivors often face. Using medical records, these investigators matched 75 women who received hormones after their surgery with 75 women who did not. The pairs were matched on age by decade, stage of cancer, number of children, surgery, post-operative radiation treatment, presence of other health problems, and several specific cancer indicators such as lymph node status. Hormones were given in pill form, by transdermal patch or vaginal cream for women in the treatment group; initiation of therapy usually took place within the first year after cancer diagnosis.

The highest risk of cancer recurrence exists within the first year after treatment. In this study, the average length of follow-up was almost 7 years for hormone users and 5 years 9 months for nonusers. There were 2 recurrences in the hormone treatment group over the course of the project, and 11 in the group that did not receive hormone treatment. Of the women who had recurrences, only one in each group had died from cancer. The amount of time to cancer recurrence was statistically significantly different between the two groups, with the hormone replacement group having a longer period of being disease-free.

Prior to this work, there were no studies of the relationship between hormone replacement therapy and uterine cancer recurrence that used a control group. With the well-documented cardiac and bone health benefits that hormone replacement provides to postmenopausal women, this study gives a stronger basis for the discussion and decision-making process between an endometrial cancer survivor and her oncologist.

(Estrogen replacement therapy in endometrial cancer patients: A matched control study. K. Suriano, M. McHale, C. McLaren, K. Li, A. Re & P. Disaia. Obstetrics and Gynecology, April 2001.)

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