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Women’s Cancer Q&A: Advances in Care

WebMD’s women's cancer expert, Harold J. Burstein, talks to WebMD's chief medical editor about treatment advances, research breakthroughs, and the prognosis for the future.

What about cervical cancer? The recent HPV vaccine certainly seems to be the biggest news in cancer in recent years. Do you agree? continued...

We know that cervical cancer is a sexually transmitted disease, through the transmission of the human papillomavirus, which is responsible for most cases of cervical cancer. It is also caused by smoking. So now, women can take even more steps to help prevent this cancer. They can quit smoking and exercise careful judgment in sexual activities, get regular Pap smears, and get the vaccine.

Right now, the vaccine is recommended for girls as young as 9 and women up to age 26 who didn’t get it as youngsters. The vaccine is only effective before a woman is infected with HPV, which is why it’s recommended for girls and young women. The vaccine is also being studied for older women and for boys. I would expect a significant decrease in cervical cancer cases 20 years from now.

Uterine cancer is the most common cancer of the female reproductive system, but I don’t hear about it too often. What’s your outlook on this cancer?

It’s typically a disease of older women, and most cases are cured with a hysterectomy. We’ve seen a drop in incidences, largely due to more awareness and more early detection. Another factor is that fewer women are taking HRT [hormone replacement therapy], once a very common treatment for menopausal symptoms. Given all this, I’d expect the decrease in uterine cancer to continue in the years ahead.

We’ve seen a drop in breast cancer cases, but at the same time we know that fewer women may be getting mammograms. The public also appears to be more aware of cervical and ovarian cancers. Overall, what is the prognosis for women’s cancers going forward?

Our best hope is early detection. We’ve seen how that’s made an enormous difference with breast cancer. If we can develop more detection tools for other cancers, the outlook for all will be much better. That’s my best guess at the future right now. 

Biography: Harold J. Burstein is an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a medical oncologist in the Breast Oncology Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. He also serves on the National Comprehensive Cancer Network Breast Cancer Panel, the Cancer and Leukemia Group B (CALGB) Breast Committee, and several working groups on breast cancer in the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Originally published in the September/October 2007 issue of WebMD the Magazine.

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