A new study finds that intrauterine devices (IUD), which are traditionally used as contraceptives, could help treat early stage endometrial cancer in women who wish to preserve their fertility.
The new study tracked 34 Italian women under age 40. Fourteen women had early stage endometrial cancer (a cancer of the uterine lining) and 20 had a precancerous endometrial disease. Each woman was treated with an IUD that secreted a low level of a synthetic progesterone hormone to the uterus. The women also received monthly injections to inhibit estrogen. (More on Time.com: A New Artificial Ovary May Someday Boost Women’s Success with In Vitro)
The idea was to block the growth of endometrial cancer by blocking estrogen, which fuels it, and to prevent the endometrial layer from building up in the uterus by delivering the localized progesterone hormone through the IUD.
A year after IUD placement, 19 of the women with precancerous disease had no sign of endometrial cancer, but four would need retreatment. Eight women with early stage cancer also saw their cancer disappear after six months, and two would need further treatment. (More on Time.com: Teen Girls Should Stick With Pediatrician for Pelvic Exam)
Women who presented without cancer after a year of therapy were allowed to remove their IUDs and attempt to get pregnant. Nine women had successful pregnancies. As of 2006, 10 years after the study began, all women are still alive and cancer-free.
The study results, while encouraging, still need confirmation. If they bear out, the IUD treatment may someday help the minority of younger patients who develop endometrial cancer. It occurs mostly in postmenopausal women, but about 5% to 10% of patients are under age 40 and may still wish to have children, according to the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania. About 40,000 new cases of endometrial cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year.
The usual treatment for the disease is a complete hysterectomy, which precludes pregnancy. In younger women with cancer, doctors may try to maintain fertility by using oral doses of progestin, but the therapy results in side effects including skin rashes, nausea, vomiting, headaches and abnormal uterine bleeding, according to background material in the study. The IUD provides a targeted dose of hormone to the uterus, decreasing the risk of side effects.
The IUD is not approved by the government to treat endometrial cancer, but it is approved to treat endometriosis, a painful condition in which uterine tissue grows outside of the uterus. Doctors who prescribe the device as a contraceptive also report that it helps patients who have heavy or painful periods.
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