Women diagnosed with ovarian cancer, traditionally viewed as an aggressive killer, are much more likely to survive the disease than they were several decades ago, new research shows.
"Ovarian cancer, unfortunately, is associated with a very high death rate," said study author Dr. Jason Wright, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City.
But that seems to be changing, he said.
"We wanted to do this study because there have been a number of advances in the treatment of ovarian cancer," Wright said. "There is better surgery, better chemo and better ways to deliver the chemo. More recently, there has also been a better understanding of the biology and genetics of the cancer."
To see if these advances have made an impact on survival rates, Wright's team evaluated nearly 50,000 women who were diagnosed with the disease between 1975 and 2011.
All of the data came from a large national cancer database.
"We compared survival for women with cancer compared to women without cancer [in the general population]," he said.
After accounting for advances in general medical care, Wright said, "women diagnosed in 2006 compared to those diagnosed in 1975 are about 50 percent less likely to die from their ovarian cancer."
Survival improved for all stages of ovarian cancer from 1975 to 2011, Wright found. Women with stage 1 cancers were 49 percent less likely to die of the cancer in 2006. Those with stage 3 and 4 cancers were about 51 percent less likely to die.
The study is published in the June issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology.
About 21,000 women in the United States will get a diagnosis of ovarian cancer in 2015, according to the American Cancer Society, and about 14,000 women will die of the disease. Symptoms can be non-existent or vague, such as bloating and abdominal pain, so the cancer is often diagnosed in its late stages.
A new approach to diagnosing ovarian cancer, which looks at blood levels of a protein linked to the cancer over time, is under study and could speed diagnosis, British researchers reported recently at a medical meeting.
One expert was heartened by the findings of the new survival study.
"I think this data is actually quite exciting, to see that the life expectancy is actually better," said Dr. Don Dizon, clinical co-director of gynecologic oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
He called the improvement in survival "quite significant."
However, Dizon said, he believes the gains are not always coming about by cure.
"Patients are living longer due to advances in medicine in general," Dizon said. And "we have widened treatment options for women." However, "even when the cancer is not cured, we are often able to continue treating it to control the disease rather than cure it," he added.
"I think the public health message [of the study] is a good one," Dizon said. "Ovarian cancer is no longer a death sentence."