Celebrating Women's Health
As we are all aware, last Sunday was Mother's Day. Fittingly, it was also the first day of National Women's Health Week, an annual opportunity to educate women about important health screenings and to encourage them to take advantage of every opportunity to prevent diseases like cancer.
As the recently released NCI Women's Health Report demonstrated, NCI and the cancer community have much to be proud of in breast cancer research and beyond. Yet we also have a tremendous amount of work to do. Articles in this week's issue touch on both accomplishments and needs.
We are continually striving to bolster the effectiveness of breast screenings. An NCI-funded study, for example, demonstrated that digital mammography may be superior to standard film mammography for women with dense breasts. More recently, it was shown that adding an MRI scan to the standard diagnostic workup following a diagnosis of breast cancer can detect nearly all contralateral breast cancers missed by mammography.
Unfortunately, as the results of an NCI-led study released just yesterday reveal, progress does not preclude the need for continued diligence. The study showed a recent decrease in mammography rates, a drop that includes women most likely to benefit. National Women's Health Week provides an ideal opportunity to remind women about the potentially life-saving importance of regular cancer screenings including colonoscopy, skin exams, and Pap tests.
We are also well aware that the leading cause of cancer deaths in women is lung cancer - a source of significant concern and a high-priority issue for NCI. The NCI lung cancer Specialized Program of Research Excellence at the University of Pittsburgh, for instance, is investigating whether estrogen receptors may play a role in women being more prone than men to getting a more aggressive form of lung cancer.
One of the most exciting advances in women's health was the approval last year of the HPV vaccine Gardasil. Recently released data suggest that Gardasil and another investigational HPV vaccine are safe and confer long-term protection against these HPV types. Meanwhile, the NCI researchers whose work led to the development of these first-generation vaccines are collaborating with researchers from Johns Hopkins University on a second-generation vaccine intended to protect against more HPV types.
Along those lines, a study published last week demonstrated that HPV-16 infection was an independent risk factor for oropharyngeal cancer, suggesting the strides being made toward preventing cervical cancer could offer unexpected benefits in another area of cancer prevention - a hallmark of quality research.
Findings from another NCI-supported study led the institute last year to take the rare step of issuing a clinical announcement, advising oncologists about the superiority of intraperitoneal chemotherapy in the treatment of advanced ovarian cancer.
Far too often, though, ovarian cancer isn't detected until it has reached an advanced stage and is far more difficult to treat. In response, NCI has launched the Ovarian Cancer Early Detection Program genetics and screening study to, among other things, identify women at increased risk for developing ovarian cancer and identify and develop highly sensitive and specific tumor markers for the detection of early-stage ovarian cancer.
These are just some examples of how NCI is helping to improve women's health. I'd like to congratulate the NCI Office of Women's Health for its guidance and leadership in helping to advance research on cancers in women. I'd also like to encourage all women who haven't done so recently to use the interactive check-up wizard on the Women's Health Week Web site and make an appointment with their physician to discuss the appropriate screenings they should receive.
Dr. John E. Niederhuber