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Joining forces against womb cancer

by Ailsa Stevens | Analysis

18 October 2010

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A nurse working on a clinical trial

A new clinical trial is looking at the best way to treat womb cancer.

When it comes to cancer, radiotherapy is a mainstay of modern day cancer treatment. As we recently highlighted, it’s a little known fact it plays a key role in treating around four in ten people with cancer. But sometimes radiotherapy on its own isn’t enough, particularly if the cancer is advanced or has spread to other parts of the body. So the combined forces of chemotherapy and radiotherapy are often used together.

Each treatment has its unique merits: radiotherapy delivers a localised attack to destroy the primary tumour – the cancer’s chief stronghold. Meanwhile, chemotherapy travels around the bloodstream to try and kill off any dividing cancer cells that may have broken rank and started growing elsewhere.

For several types of cancer, this combo of chemotherapy and radiotherapy together has been proven to reduce the likelihood of any remaining cancer cells being able to regroup and start growing elsewhere in the body as a secondary tumour.

There’s a lot of research looking to establish the best treatment for cancers that start in the womb (endometrium). And in particular who should have what. Researchers in the USA and Europe have looked at using both chemotherapy and radiotherapy after surgery for women at a high risk of the cancer coming back.

This combined treatment has been useful in other gynaecological cancers. But there’s not yet enough proof to say whether it should become routine. So a group of London-based researchers, with help from Cancer Research UK funding, are now running a clinical trial to find out if having radiotherapy and chemotherapy after surgery could further improve the outlook for womb cancer patients.

Watch this short video – featuring trial co-ordinator Dr Melanie Powell – to find out more about the PORTEC-3 trial and how it could bring benefits to women with womb cancer:


Treating womb cancer

As with many other types of cancer, the outcome of womb cancer depends on how advanced it is when it is diagnosed. In other words, the stage of the cancer.

The outlook for the majority of women diagnosed with womb cancer is good. Most cases are picked up at an early stage – increasing the chances of successful treatment – and about 8 out of every 10 (80 per cent) of women live for at least five years. Many of these women will have been cured of their cancer.

But if the disease is diagnosed at a later stage, after it’s begun to spread, it can be harder to treat successfully.  Around 1 in 10 of women who get womb cancer have high grade tumours, which can be harder to treat and are more likely to come back after treatment.

The first and most important stage of treatment for womb cancer – and indeed for almost all types of cancer – is often surgery.

This gets rid of most of the tumour, but if there’s a chance the cancer could come back – if it’s been diagnosed at a late stage or is a high grade – then a further course of radiotherapy to the pelvis can help.

In either case, it’s unlikely that any treatment will kill every single cancer cell in the body. The body’s own immune system usually deals with any stragglers, but a few can sometimes slip through the net and start growing again after treatment has finished. This is why cancer can sometimes come back in another part of the body.

The PORTEC-3 Trial

To find out whether adding chemotherapy to the mix could reduce the chances of this happening, some of our London-based researchers have launched PORTEC-3 – a new Europe-wide womb cancer trial.

The researchers are recruiting 500 women with womb cancer, who will be split into two groups. One group will have radiotherapy on its own – the standard treatment for women if there’s a high chance their cancer could come back – while the other will have chemotherapy at the same time as radiotherapy.

As well as finding out if adding chemotherapy helps to stop the cancer from returning and makes a difference to survival, the researchers will also be looking at whether it affects the women’s quality of life.

The results of this important trial will help find out whether this type of treatment should become routine and who should have it. Clinical trials like this are already leading to advances in preventing, detecting and treating cancer that will ultimately save many lives. This is just one of hundreds of clinical trials supported by Cancer Research UK and that we hope will bring life-saving treatments to patients in the near future.

Ailsa Taylor, Cancer Research UK press officer

  • Anyone affected by cancer or interested in finding out more about clinical trials can visit our patient information website, CancerHelp UK.  Our Cancer Information Nurses are also available on freephone 0808 800 4040 (9am-5pm, Monday to Friday) to talk to anyone concerned about cancer. And our online forum, Cancer Chat , is always open for people to share their experiences and find information.