A decade of progress in Women’s health, cancer research
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Denise Thigpen, director, Breast Imaging Center at the Murtha Cancer Center at Walter Reed Bethesda, reads two mammograms of a patient. (Courtesy photo)
DRamatic strides have been made in cancer treatments for women during the past 10 years, and the most promising solutions lie ahead. Even the traditional approaches of chemotherapy and radiation are being fine-tuned, with more emphasis placed on surgical solutions.
A recent breakthrough has been the Cancer Genome Atlas, according to Army Col. Craig Shriver, director of the John P. Murtha Cancer Center at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. In this project, Shriver and his colleagues worked with the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute on breast genome sequencing. They learned through clinical trials that cancers in the breast and ovaries, while genetically driven, are the same; they just occur in different parts of the body. This enabled researchers to use chemotherapy agents typically used for ovarian cancer to treat patients with breast cancer, and get results.
“These findings have been very helpful in how we treat patients with breast cancer,” he said. “With this just being a ‘first-step’, we need to look further at the genetics of the cancers, and better harness the treatments for cancers that are occurring in other organs with cross-platform testing,” said Shriver.
Moving forward, Dr. Priya Bhandarkar, a radiologist at the Murtha Cancer Center, sees more collaborative efforts among investigators in the fields of functional imaging, molecular biology and pathology to better detect disease in women at the cellular and molecular levels.
“This research could create clinical tools for detecting cancer earlier, and more accurately quantifying the extent of disease,” she said. “Being able to do this, and noninvasively evaluate lymph node involvement, may move the dial in terms of finding better ways to treat cancer in women.”
This and other noteworthy discoveries have taken place in the past 10 years in the areas of women’s health and cancer research. Among these is the development of a human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine that is highly effective in treating cervical cancer and cancers of the head and neck. “If fully utilized, this has the potential to prevent 40,000 cases of cervical cancer per year in the United States,” said Shriver. “Now it’s just a matter of getting buy-in from parents and communities to make the vaccine more widely used by adolescents and young adults.”
One of the big curative components in the past decade or so, he said, is surgery for cancer. “There hasn’t been a lot of research in this, because many used to think surgery wasn’t an effective form of treatment. But what we’ve learned as it relates to ovarian cancer is that the experience of the surgeon, and the surgery performed, really make a difference.”
Shriver said that, surprisingly, after decades of research, it remains unclear as to how often a woman should get a mammogram. “The American Cancer Society recommends annual mammograms for women starting at age 45 and every other year for women 55 and older,” he said. “Patients are encouraged to speak to their physician about breast cancer screening and personal risk factors.”