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Aggressive Aim at Ovarian Cancer

Health: Some patients are opting for cutting-edge therapy: chemo and a bone marrow transplant, often without the help of insurance. Is it effective? It's too early to tell.

July 02, 1996|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

Six months after extensive surgery to remove ovarian cancer, Joanne Jensen of Burbank checked back into the hospital for "second look" surgery, to see if traces of cancer remained.

The news was almost good. Of 50 tiny tissue samples, one contained microscopic cancer cells.

What Jensen opted to do next is on the cutting edge of cancer treatment, particularly for ovarian cancer. Instead of checking into the hospital for another round of standard chemotherapy, she gave her doctors the go-ahead to try an investigational therapy that has become popular for women with advanced breast cancer: very high-dose chemotherapy and bone marrow transplantation administered on an outpatient basis.

The effectiveness of this therapy is considered unproven for breast cancer. Even so, oncologists are increasingly compelled to try it for ovarian cancer because of the lack of progress in treating what is one of the most deadly types of cancer.

"This is a bad disease," says Jensen, 55, who had the high-dose chemo in March and is already back at work teaching middle school. "But I've had the latest treatment for this type of cancer."

The therapy Jensen received also exemplifies how medical advances are being applied in an era when insurers refuse to open their checkbooks for anything deemed unproven--especially if it costs a lot.

Hospitals are increasingly offering the exorbitantly expensive high-dose chemotherapy and bone marrow transplantation on an outpatient basis to curb costs. While insurers generally now cover the therapy for breast cancer patients--after years of patient protests and several high-profile court battles--most women with ovarian cancer are still turned down.

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Bone marrow transplantation--or a variation called peripheral blood stem cell transplantation--has increased dramatically in the treatment of several types of cancer.

Traditionally, bone marrow has been donated to treat cancers of the blood, such as leukemia and lymphoma. The patient undergoes intense treatment to kill all blood-forming cells, including the cancer, and then is reinfused with donor marrow to produce healthy, cancer-free blood cells.

Autologous transplantation--using the patient's own bone marrow or stem cells--has become popular for tumors of the breast, testicle and ovary. Autologous bone marrow transplantation (ABMT) for these cancers allows doctors to bombard the patient with much higher doses of chemotherapy than have been previously attempted. (Very high doses of chemotherapy can destroy blood's capacity to regenerate.)

"What has limited us to high chemotherapy doses is the toxicity it has on the bone marrow. The lower the blood counts, the higher the risk of infection or bleeding," says Linnea Chap, an oncologist at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center who treated Jensen as part of a study.

Removing bone marrow or peripheral stem cells before chemotherapy and then reinfusing it afterward reduces the risks associated with high-dose chemo.

Some doctors are so enthusiastic that they are recommending high-dose chemotherapy and ABMT for some patients upon the initial diagnosis. Until recently, high-dose chemo and ABMT was considered a last-resort.

"With the success we've seen with breast cancer, we are applying it more to ovarian and testicular cancer," Chap says.

But, Dr. Robert O. Dillman, medical director of Hoag Cancer Center in Newport Beach, says: "It has certainly not been accepted for ovarian cancer with the same enthusiasm for which it has been accepted for breast cancer."

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ABMT for breast cancer has grown from an estimated 522 cases in 1989 to 4,000 cases in 1994, the GAO reported. The treatment ranges from $65,000 to more than $100,000.

Ovarian cancer is diagnosed in about 26,000 American women each year. Often detected only after the cancer has reached an advanced stage, the five-year survival rate is 44%, according to the American Cancer Society.

If diagnosed and treated early, the five-year cure rate is 91%. But according to a study released last month from the National Cancer Institute, 90% of women who have surgery for early-stage ovarian cancer are not checked thoroughly by surgeons to see if the cancer has spread. If the cancer has spread, chemotherapy is recommended.

In cases of advanced ovarian cancer, extensive surgery is usually followed by four to six months of standard-dose chemotherapy.

"The biggest obstacle to this field moving forward is the reluctance by insurers to pay the [ABMT] bill," Dillman says. "The science behind it is so strong and our options are so dismal that you can't justify not doing this."

Chap's research project--with colleagues John Glaspy and Beth Karlan--is open to women with recurrent ovarian cancer as well as those with newly diagnosed cases.

"If this is going to work, ultimately it should be done upfront--right after a patient has been diagnosed and had surgery or after a first round of chemo--and not wait for a relapse to happen," Chap says.

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