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Symptoms, not pelvic exams, pick up most endometrial cancer recurrences



Only 8.5% of endometrial cancer recurrences were caught by routine pelvic exams in asymptomatic women in a review of 234 cases at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

It was a much lower rate than previously reported. Asymptomatic exams picked up just 4% of recurrences among high-risk women and 14% in low-risk women.

The findings are important as cancer care shifts away from in-person follow-up – including pelvic exams – to telemedicine in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, said investigators who were led by University of Wisconsin medical student Hailey Milakovich.

Physicians should reassure patients and providers anxious about skipping routine pelvic exams, she said. There’s a “relatively low risk of missing an endometrial cancer recurrence when forgoing pelvic examination. This information ... is especially relevant in the era of increased use of telemedicine.”

Patient symptoms, such a pain and vaginal bleeding, were by far how most recurrences were caught, accounting for almost 80% of detections among low-risk women and 60% among high-risk patients. It highlights the importance of telling women what to report to their providers, Ms. Milakovich said when she recently presented her study at the Society of Gynecologic Oncology Annual Meeting on Women’s Cancer.

“Our hope is that this information will help us better counsel our patients regarding the risk of” missing an exam, she said.

The findings speak to an ongoing question in gynecologic oncology: how intensely do endometrial cancer patients need to be followed after curative-intent treatment?

COVID-19 brought the issue to a head

Women who typically would have had several pelvic exams a year were channeled to virtual office visits and not pelvic exams. The move caused “some level of anxiety” for both patients and providers, Ms. Milakovich said.

The study discussant, University of California, Los Angeles, gynecologic oncologist Ritu Salani, MD, said the Wisconsin team found something “really important.”

The “investigators suggest there’s a really low utility for pelvic examinations. I think this is very timely” as health care shifts to telemedicine. It reduces the burden on women when “they don’t have to come in and pay for parking, take time off from work, or find childcare,” she said. The findings are also in line with a larger study on the issue, the TOTEM trial with almost 2,000 women, which found no overall survival benefit with intensive monitoring.

The dogma is that routine pelvic exams pick up almost 70% of endometrial cancer recurrences. The Wisconsin team wanted to test that in their 234 recurrence patients from 2010-2019, all of whom had clear documentation about how their recurrences were detected.

Ninety-nine women had low-risk disease, defined as stage 1 or 2, grade 1 or 2 endometrioid histology; 135 women had high-risk cancer, which was defined as stage 3 or 4 endometrioid disease or any other histology.

Recurrence was detected by symptoms in 78.8% of the low-risk group. Asymptomatic pelvic exams detected 14.1% of recurrences; imaging found 2%; biomarkers found 2%; and recurrences were detected by incidental findings in the rest.

Recurrence was found in the high-risk group by symptoms in 60%, imaging in 17.8%, biomarkers in 14.1%, asymptomatic pelvic exams in 4.4%, and incidental findings in 3.7%.

Patients were an average of 68.5 years old, 95.3% were White, and they lived an average of 50.2 miles from the university.

There was no commercial funding for the study. Ms. Milakovich didn’t have any disclosures. Dr. Salani is an adviser for GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Genentech, and other companies.

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