A One-Two Vs. Cancer

In cancer research, the next best thing to finding a cure is upping the odds of survival. Last week the National Cancer Institute announced a new treatment for cervical cancer that can do just that. Five clinical trials of 1,700 women showed that adding chemotherapy to standard radiation treatment reduced patients' risk of dying by 30 to 50 percent. "To see such a big difference was amazing," says Dr. Mitchell Morris, who led one trial at Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

Invasive cervical cancer is expected to strike 12,800 women this year, killing one third. For decades, doctors have treated the disease by surgically removing tumors or by targeting the pelvic area with radiation. Chemotherapy, a bodywide assault, seemed unnecessary. But the new studies suggest that chemo works synergistically with radiation, inhibiting cancer cells' ability to repair themselves after treatment. And it has only moderate side effects, such as nausea.

The best weapon against cervical cancer is still catching it early, through Pap smears (precancerous cells can be easily removed). The new treatment, chemoradiation, is for more advanced cases, where the cancer has spread deep into the cervix or pelvic area. It is so promising that the NCI issued a clinical alert to doctors before the publication of trial data in scientific journals--a move made only four times in the past 10 years.