Abdominal Treatment For Cancer Promising

Associated Press
Thursday, January 5, 2006

Pumping heavy doses of chemotherapy drugs directly into the abdomen boosted survival of women with advanced ovarian cancer by 16 months in what experts call the first advance in more than a decade against one of the most lethal cancers in women.

There is a high price, though: The treatment is so tough that nearly 6 in 10 women in a study could not endure it and switched to standard intravenous chemotherapy. Side effects included abdominal pain from bloating and problems with the catheter used to infuse the drugs.

Still, the National Cancer Institute is urging doctors to begin using the procedure, its first endorsement of any cancer treatment since 1999. Six medical groups focused on ovarian cancer joined in the recommendation.

The study was reported in today's New England Journal of Medicine.

Stephen A. Cannistra of Harvard Medical School wrote in an accompanying editorial that the 16-month jump in survival "is one of the largest benefits ever observed" from a new therapy for gynecologic cancer.

About 80 percent of women have ovarian cancer diagnosed after it has spread because early symptoms are so mild. It is the top killer among gynecologic cancers in this country. Last year, about 22,200 American women had the cancer diagnosed and about 16,200 died from it, according to the cancer institute.

Doctors at dozens of U.S. hospitals, led by Deborah K. Armstrong at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, compared chemo regimens in 415 women. Each had surgery to remove ovarian tumors, but some hard-to-reach cancer cells remained in the abdominal cavity. IV chemo drugs have difficulty reaching those cells, and there is a limit to how high a dose can be given through the bloodstream.

Half the women in the study got standard intravenous chemotherapy with Taxol and cisplatin. The others got Taxol intravenously, then abdominal infusions of cisplatin and more Taxol at high doses.

The drugs were given through an implanted seal with a catheter, or tiny tube, hanging down into the abdominal cavity. The women rolled back and forth to bathe all the cancer cells in the mixture.

Median survival was about four years and two months for women who received only IV chemotherapy but was just over 5 1/2 years for women who also got at least some abdominal chemotherapy.

But only 42 percent could tolerate all six cycles of abdominal chemotherapy.

"It's not perfect, but it is certainly a major improvement," the biggest in ovarian cancer since Taxol was introduced nearly 15 years ago, said Richard R. Barakat, chief of gynecologic oncology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He was not involved in the study.

Armstrong said she believes her results can be improved. Although more women on the abdominal treatment survived, their quality of life was significantly worse until weeks after treatment ended.

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