Podcast: The Art and Science of Treating Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancers can be as unique as the patients in whom they’re diagnosed so there’s no one size fits all approach to treatment. In this episode we talk with Dr. Leslie Randall, Division Head of Gynecologic Oncology with the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. In addition to current treatment options like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation Dr. Randall discusses innovations like immune therapies, offers tips on how patients can cope with treatment and its aftermath, and talks about the crucial role patients play in the research and clinical trials process.
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Treatment of cervical cancer depends on:
- The stage of the cancer
- The size and shape of the tumor
- The woman’s age and general health
- Her desire to have children in the future
Early cervical cancer can be cured by removing or destroying the precancerous or cancerous tissue. There are various surgical ways to do this without removing the uterus or damaging the cervix, so that a woman can still have children in the future.
Types of surgery for early cervical cancer include:
- Loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP) — uses electricity to remove abnormal tissue
- Cryotherapy — freezes abnormal cells
- Laser therapy — uses light to burn abnormal tissue
(with permission from the National Cancer Institute)
Different types of treatment are available for patients with cervical cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Three types of standard treatment are used:
Surgery (removing the cancer in an operation) is sometimes used to treat cervical cancer. The following surgical procedures may be used:
- Conization: A procedure to remove a cone-shaped piece of tissue from the cervix and cervical canal. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells. Conization may be used to diagnose or treat a cervical condition. This procedure is also called a cone biopsy.
- Total hysterectomy: Surgery to remove the uterus, including the cervix. If the uterus and cervix are taken out through the vagina, the operation is called a vaginal hysterectomy. If the uterus and cervix are taken out through a large incision (cut) in the abdomen, the operation is called a total abdominal hysterectomy. If the uterus and cervix are taken out through a small incision in the abdomen using a laparoscope, the operation is called a total laparoscopic hysterectomy.
- Hysterectomy: The uterus is surgically removed with or without other organs or tissues. In a total hysterectomy, the uterus and cervix are removed. In a total hysterectomy with salpingo-oophorectomy, (a) the uterus plus one (unilateral) ovary and fallopian tube are removed; or (b) the uterus plus both (bilateral) ovaries and fallopian tubes are removed. In a radical hysterectomy, the uterus, cervix, both ovaries, both fallopian tubes, and nearby tissue is removed. These procedures are done using a low transverse incision or a vertical incision.
- Radical hysterectomy: Surgery to remove the uterus, cervix, part of the vagina, and a wide area of ligaments and tissues around these organs. The ovaries, fallopian tubes, or nearby lymph nodes may also be removed.
- Modified radical hysterectomy: Surgery to remove the uterus, cervix, upper part of the vagina, and ligaments and tissues that closely surround these organs. Nearby lymph nodes may also be removed. In this type of surgery, not as many tissues and/or organs are removed as in a radical hysterectomy.
- Pelvic exenteration: Surgery to remove the lower colon, rectum, and bladder. In women, the cervix, vagina, ovaries, and nearby lymph nodes are also removed. Artificial openings (stoma) are made for urine and stool to flow from the body to a collection bag. Plastic surgery may be needed to make an artificial vagina after this operation.
- Cryosurgery: A treatment that uses an instrument to freeze and destroy abnormal tissue, such as carcinoma in situ. This type of treatment is also called cryotherapy.
- Laser surgery: A surgical procedure that uses a laser beam (a narrow beam of intense light) as a knife to make bloodless cuts in tissue or to remove a surface lesion such as a tumor.
- Loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP): A treatment that uses electrical current passed through a thin wire loop as a knife to remove abnormal tissue or cancer.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.
- Some types of cervical cancer do not respond well to treatment.
- The cancer may come back (recur) after treatment.
- Women who have treatment to save the uterus have a high risk of the cancer coming back (recurrence).
- Surgery and radiation can cause problems with sexual, bowel, and bladder function.
Many factors influence the outcome of cervical cancer. These include:
- The type of cancer
- The stage of the disease
- The woman’s age and general physical condition
Pre-cancerous conditions are completely curable when followed up and treated properly. The chance of being alive in 5 years (5-year survival rate) for cancer that has spread to the inside of the cervix walls but not outside the cervix area is 92%. The 5-year survival rate falls steadily as the cancer spreads into other areas.