New treatment for ovarian cancer

Researchers find a better way to fight the disease, but it's exceptionally rough on patients.

Published January 5, 2006 8:31PM (EST)

For ovarian cancer sufferers, this week brings good news and bad news. The good news is, a recent study found that an experimental treatment boosted the life expectancy of women with advanced ovarian cancer by 16 months or more. The bad news is, that treatment really, really sucks.

Most ovarian cancer patients get intravenous chemotherapy, which is already notoriously hard on the system. The new regimen, called intraperitoneal (IP) treatment, keeps up the regular chemo and adds more, via a special implant that lets doctors pump high doses of chemo drugs directly into patients' abdomens.

Flooding the affected region with cancer-killing drugs does seem to get the job done -- researchers are calling the survival increase extraordinary, and the National Cancer Institute is issuing a rare bulletin encouraging doctors to use the treatment. But the side effects, which range from fatigue and pain to fever, infection and nerve problems, are likely to be even more severe than they are with regular chemo. And the implanted devices and tubing may put patients at greater risk for dangerous infections.

The problem isn't just that IP treatment may be hellish for the patients. It's that the severity of the side effects may cause more women to stop chemo before their courses are complete. Only 42 percent of the study's participants were able to complete the full course of IP treatment, compared with 83 percent who completed their courses of intravenous chemotherapy.

Still, the fact that the women's survival rates improved in spite of the dropout rate means that even an incomplete course of IP treatment may be better than intravenous chemo alone. Now it's time for researchers to return to the important task of making the treatment more tolerable for patients.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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