Saint Luke’s News: Trials show medications for ovarian cancer dramatically reduce chance of recurrence in wide range of patients

October 2, 2019
Senior woman smiling, holding child


Two recent trials are giving new hope to more patients with ovarian cancer.

AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline announced at the 2019 European Society for Medical Oncology conference that medications made by each of the drug manufacturers were shown to dramatically reduce the chance of recurrence in women treated for ovarian cancer.

Patients diagnosed with ovarian cancer have a 70% chance of the cancer coming back, according to the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance. In patients with stage IV cancer, that number jumps to a 90-95% risk.

However, the trials showed that two new drugs, Lynparza and Zejula, reduced the risk of recurrence by an impressive 38-41%. Both medications are PARP inhibitors, which are currently only used after initial surgery and chemotherapy in patients who have the BRCA gene mutation.

“This is a huge step in being able to offer more women an active option to improve their odds of not having a recurrence or at least delaying recurrence for several years,” said Michelle Rowland, MD, PhD, a gynecologic oncologist at Saint Luke’s Cancer Institute.

In 2019, more than 22,500 women will learn they have ovarian cancer, and nearly 14,000 women will die from it, according to the American Cancer Society. That makes it the deadliest cancer of the female reproductive system.

Ovarian cancer is often not caught until it is in the late stages when the cancer has already spread. That’s because the symptoms are often subtle or mild. Doctors recommend remembering these four things to help diagnose the cancer early.

One: Know your genes

“Knowing your family history is key,” Dr. Rowland said. “Do you have a high-risk mutation for ovarian cancer in your family? The most common is BRCA carriers, but you should also know if you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer. A personal history of breast cancer is also a risk factor. Based on those factors, you could be referred for genetic testing or genetic counseling and possible risk reduction surgery.”

Two: Signs and symptoms

“It may be something as simple as bloating, changes in your bowel or bladder function, weight gain/weight loss, abdominal pain, or feeling full quicker when you eat,” Dr. Rowland said. “So, we’re encouraging women to become more in tune with those subtle symptoms and speak up about those to check and see if there’s any concern.”

Three: There is no screening test

“A normal pap smear does not mean that you don’t have ovarian cancer,” Dr. Rowland said. “Studies have shown that we have no good screening tests. If you have a significant change in any symptoms or if symptoms aren’t going away, you need to see your gynecologist for an evaluation.”

Four: Know who your gynecologic oncologist is

Ovarian cancer is often diagnosed after an ultrasound of the female reproductive system that can help find tumors in the ovary or a CA-125 blood test that can detect high levels of a specific protein.

Your gynecologic oncologist will work with you to come up with a treatment plan that is tailored to you. Treatments vary person to person, but often include a combination of chemotherapy and surgery. Maintenance therapy, or PARP inhibitors, may also be used in some patients to help prevent or delay the cancer from coming back.

“In terms of ovarian cancer, we’ve certainly made strides over time in terms of improving survival, but there is still a lot of room for additional research,” Dr. Rowland said. “We have the GYN cancer network and open trials that we’re working on actively. We are looking for ways to identify early cancer and better treatments every day.”

Learn more about ovarian cancer and find the Saint Luke’s Cancer Specialists location nearest you.

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Michelle Rowland, MD, PhD

Gynecologic Oncology, Obstetrics and Gynecology