Ovarian Cancer Survivors Living Longer Than Expected

Researchers are finding that women diagnosed with ovarian cancer, a disease that has long been linked with a high death rate, are much more likely to survive now than they were decades ago. The surprising findings reverse the perception that women diagnosed with cancer of the ovary always face a poor chance of survival.

Indeed, although the study confirmed earlier findings on characteristics associated with ovarian cancer survival, namely younger age, earlier stage and lower grade tumors at diagnosis, it also identified a surprising number of long-term survivors who didn’t meet those criteria.

Pouring over data collected on thousands of California ovarian cancer patients, University of California Davis researchers determined that almost one-third survived at least 10 years after diagnosis. Says Rosemary Cress, lead author of the paper:

“The perception that almost all women will die of this disease is not correct. This information will be helpful to physicians who first diagnose these patients and the obstetricians/gynecologists who take care of them after they receive treatment from specialists.”

Cress, an epidemiologist, used the California Cancer Registry to analyze data reported on all California residents diagnosed with epithelial ovarian cancer between 1994 and 2001. Epithelial ovarian cancer is the most common type of ovarian cancer, occurring in nine out of 10 cases.

Co-author Gary Leiserowitz, a professor of gynecologic oncology and interim chair of the UC Davis Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, said:

“This information is important for patient counseling. Many patients and physicians know that ovarian cancer is a dangerous cancer, but they don’t realize that there is significant biological variability among patients. It’s not a uniformly fatal prognosis.”

Leiserowitz says the next step in the research is to figure out why so many women who are given a poor prognosis eventually beat their odds.

“For a disease that is so dangerous, why are so many surviving?” he asks.

Among the theories, says Leiserowitz, are that ovarian cancer patients who carry mutations in the tumor suppressor genes BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 respond better to chemotherapy than those who don’t.

He also suggests that other biological differences among patients with advanced ovarian cancer may affect individual outcomes. It’s also possible that some patients get more effective treatment than others, boosting their survival odds.

Cress, Rosemary D. DrPH; Chen, Yingjia S. MPH; Morris, Cyllene R. PhD; Petersen, Megan MD; Leiserowitz, Gary S. MD
Characteristics of Long-Term Survivors of Epithelial Ovarian Cancer.
Obstetrics & Gynecology, doi: 10.1097/AOG.0000000000000981

Photo: MRC NIMR, Wellcome Images