Healthy Living

Improving the odds of surviving cancer

Friday, April 03, 2009

About 25,000 women in this country are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Many are already in the advanced stages of the disease by the time they're diagnosed. Because there's no good screening test, and the cancer isn't caught in the early stages, overall survival is about 25-percent. But a new discovery may help improve those odds.

Jill Kisker is happily married, with two kids. By just looking at her, you'd think she lives a charmed life. But three years ago, Kisker was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer.

"I just thought my kids are so little. How did this happen? How did I get here?They just can't, this just can't be true," said Kisker.

Determined to beat the odds, Kisker had surgery, six rounds of chemo, and joined a study for an experimental vaccine. Dr. Kunle Odunsi, a cancer researcher, is testing a vaccine that targets and destroys a specific protein usually found in adult men. But it's also found in ovarian cells. Dr. Odunsi says "We're able to generate very robust immune responses."

In a study of 22 women, 70-percent had a positive response to the vaccine. Dr. Odunsi calls the results promising. In another study in women who already had several recurrences, the vaccine delayed the next relapse by nearly two years.

"The ultimate goal here is that this will translate into prevention of relapse altogether and therefore prolongation of overall survival, " says Dr. Odunsi.

Three years later, Kisker is still cancer free. But she knows she's not out of the woods. She says, "Whatever I have to do to be here, I"ll do it ... as long as I'm here".

In the study she was in, the vaccine was given as an injection once a month for seven months. Doctors say they've seen no side effects in any women who received the vaccine, other than a little redness at the injection site.

Web Extra Information: Ovarian Cancer Vaccine

BACKGROUND: Ovarian cancer took the lives of 15,520 women in 2008, according to the National Cancer Institute. The most common type of this cancer is ovarian epithelial cancer, which begins in the tissue that covers the ovaries.

SYMPTOMS:

As in all cancers, the sooner ovarian cancer is diagnosed, the better a chance the patient has at recovery. Unfortunately, ovarian cancer is hard to detect early and often caught in the late stages of the disease. The National Cancer Institute says to watch out for the following symptoms:

  • Heavy feeling in the pelvis
  • Pain in the lower abdomen
  • Bleeding from the vagina
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Abnormal periods
  • Unexplained back pain that worsens
  • Nausea, vomiting, gas or loss of appetite
Recognizing those symptoms and seeking treatment could mean the difference between life or death. "There are no good screening strategies right now for ovarian cancer," Kunle Odunsi, M.D., Ph.D., professor of gynecologic oncology at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., says. "Unlike breast cancer, where you have a mammogram, colon cancer, where you have colonoscopy, prostate [cancer], where you have PSA, or cervical cancer, where you have PAP smears, for ovarian, there are no tests available to detect the disease at an early stage."

VACCINATION AS TREATMENT:

Traditional treatment options for ovarian cancer include chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy. Intraperitoneal chemotherapy is often used in the treatment of ovarian cancer and involves delivering drugs through a catheter directly into the abdomen. Researchers are looking into new drugs to treat ovarian cancer including a vaccine that helps the body recognize cancer as foreign and go on the attack against it.

Researchers hope this therapy will prevent the recurrence of cancer better than chemotherapy since the body is the attacker rather than a drug. They also hope treatments like this vaccine can improve the survival rate of ovarian cancer patients, which is estimated to be around 20 to 25 percent after 5 years. "There has been no significant improvement of those numbers over the past 30 years, and we're hoping that some of these strategies will lead our patients to live longer with a good quality of life without many of the side effects of prolonged chemotherapy," Dr. Odunsi, lead author of the vaccine study, said.


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