January Brings Important Attention to Cervical Cancer

Nita Karnik Lee, MD, MPH

By Nita Karnik Lee, MD, MPH

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, providing the opportunity to turn the spotlight on issues related to cervical cancer, its link to human papillomavirus (HPV), and the importance of early detection.

Cervical cancer is caused by persistent infection with high risk HPV types. Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers because of readily available screening tests, including the Pap smear and HPV testing.

In addition, HPV vaccines are available and recommended for boys and girls and young adults to prevent disease caused HPV infections including cancer precursors.  When the cancer is found early, it is highly treatable and curable, but we continue to advocate for prevention through screening and vaccination.

Despite screening and prevention efforts, women are still diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Approximately, 12,000 women each year will be newly diagnosed with cervical cancer in the US. At the University of Chicago Medicine, we are experienced leaders in the research and treatment of gynecological cancers, including cervical cancer.

We offer novel and personalized care for women who are diagnosed with new or recurrent cervical cancer. We are one of a few centers in Chicago that uses a number of minimally invasive surgical techniques for early cervical cancer. For example, my colleagues and I perform robotic radical hysterectomies offering women the benefits of minimally invasive surgery including less blood loss, shorter hospital stays, and quicker return to normal function.  

My colleague Ernst Lengyel, MD, PhD, Chair of the Dept. of Obstetrics/Gynecology, and our team can also offer select patients with early cervical cancer a fertility sparing option of radical trachelectomy, a surgery that removes the cervix and surrounding tissue but preserves the uterus for future childbearing potential.

Radiation oncologist Yasmin Hasan, MD, assistant professor of radiation and cellular oncology, uses highly targeted, localized radiation techniques — such as brachytherapy and intensity-modulated radiotherapy (IMRT).

Our researchers pioneered the use of IMRT to treat women with cervical and endometrial cancers. IMRT allows doctors to fully target the tumor area while sparing normal tissue in the bowel, bladder, and rectum. This greatly reduces side effects. In addition, we have been a leader in developing methods for preserving sexual function in women who undergo radiotherapy for cervical cancer.

For many young women facing cancer, fertility is a critical concern. Our multidisciplinary team is able to help women like Emily Jordan, a young woman with an amazing story. Emily was diagnosed with cervical cancer at age 30 and needed a radical hysterectomy.

Gynecologic oncologist Diane Yamada, MD, Chief, Section of Gynecologic Oncology, explained to Emily that her ovaries could be spared and the eggs they held could be used for in vitro fertilization. Remarkably, the patient’s 53-year-old mother, Cindy, offered to serve as a gestational carrier and went on to deliver a healthy baby girl for Emily and her husband.

The University of Chicago Medicine is also home to a unique program that helps female cancer patients and survivors overcome sexual health problems related to their cancer symptoms or treatment.

The Program in Integrative Sexual Medicine (PRISM) for Women and Girls with Cancer, directed by Stacy Tessler Lindau, MD, MA, associate professor of obstetrics/gynecology and medicine-geriatrics, is the first program in Illinois–and one of few nationwide–to devote a multidisciplinary clinical program specifically to the comprehensive assessment and treatment of sexual health problems in female cancer patients and survivors. Since it opened in 2008, PRISM has served 245 patients, including many of our patients who have been treated for cervical cancer.

Recurrent or metastatic cervical cancer can be very challenging to treat. The Gynecologic Oncology Section at the University of Chicago Medicine is committed to offering women facing this disease state-of-the-art clinical trials and novel agents.

As members of our national cooperative clinical trials organization, (Gynecologic Oncology Group University of Chicago Primary Investigator: Yamada and Meaghan Tenney, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics/gynecology) we are able to participate in multi-institutional clinical trials to investigate new treatments that may be more effective in treating cervical cancer than currently available options.

Our current trials include trials of chemoradiation for advanced stage cervical cancer patients as well novel immunotherapy drugs for treating recurrent cervical cancer (PI: Gini Fleming, MD. Director, Medical Oncology Breast Program
and Medical Oncology Director, Gynecologic Oncology).

Raising awareness about prevention, screening, treatment, and post-treatment care for cervical cancer remains one of our priorities in the section of Gynecologic Oncology.

Nita Karnik Lee, MD, MPH, is an Assistant Professor of Obstetrics/Gynecology at the University of Chicago Medicine. She specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of women with gynecologic malignancies. Her focus is on providing comprehensive and compassionate care to women diagnosed with ovarian, uterine, cervical, vulvar or vaginal cancers.

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