Historically, the standard of care for women diagnosed with early cervical cancer has been radical hysterectomy. Thus, young women are not only being confronted with a cancer diagnosis, but may also be forced to cope with the loss of their fertility.
As many young women with cervical cancer were not accepting of this treatment, Dr. Daniel Dargent pioneered the vaginal radical trachelectomy as a fertility-preserving treatment option for early cervical cancer in 1994. There have now been more than 900 vaginal radical trachelectomies performed and they have been shown to have oncologic outcomes similar to those of traditional radical hysterectomy, while sparing a woman’s fertility ( Int J Gynecol Cancer. 2013 Jul;23:982-9 ).
Obstetric outcomes following vaginal radical trachelectomy are acceptable with 17% miscarriage rate in the first trimester (compared to 10%-20% in the general population) and 8% in the second trimester (compared to 1%-5% in the general population) ( Am Fam Physician. 2007 Nov 1;76:1341-6 ). Following vaginal radical trachelectomy, 64% of pregnancies deliver at term.
The usual criteria required to undergo radical trachelectomy include:
1) Reproductive age with desire for fertility.
2) Stage IA1 with LVSI (lymphovascular space invasion), IA2, or IB1 with tumor less than 2 cm.
3) Limited endocervical involvement via preoperative MRI.
4) Negative pelvic lymph nodes.
Preoperative PET scan can be used to evaluate nodal status, but suspicious lymph nodes should be evaluated on frozen section at the time of surgery. The presence of LVSI alone is not a contraindication to trachelectomy.
A key limitation of vaginal radical trachelectomy is the specialized training required to perform this technically challenging procedure. Few surgeons in the United States are trained to perform vaginal radical trachelectomy. In response to this limitation, surgeons began to attempt radical trachelectomy via laparotomy ( Gynecol Oncol. 2006 Dec;103:807-13 ). Oncologic outcomes following fertility-sparing abdominal radical trachelectomy have been reported to be equivalent to radical hysterectomy. Concerns regarding the abdominal approach to radical trachelectomy include higher rates of second trimester loss (19%) when compared to the vaginal approach (8%), higher rate of loss of fertility (30%), and risk of postoperative adhesions.
The advent of minimally invasive surgery, particularly robotic surgery, now offers surgeons the ability to perform a procedure technically similar to radical hysterectomy using a minimally invasive approach. Given the similarity of procedural steps of radical trachelectomy to radical hysterectomy using the robotic platform, this procedure is gaining acceptance in the United States with an associated improved surgeon learning curve ( Gynecol Oncol. 2008 Nov;111:255-60 ). In addition, the use of minimally invasive surgery should result in less adhesion formation facilitating natural fertility options postoperatively.
Obstetric and fertility outcomes are limited following minimally invasive radical trachelectomy via laparoscopy or robotic surgery given the novelty of this procedure. Emerging obstetric outcomes appear reassuring, but further data are needed to fully understand the effects of this procedure on pregnancy outcomes and the need for assisted reproductive techniques to achieve pregnancy.
The management of pregnancies following radical trachelectomy is also an area with limited data, which presents a clinical challenge to obstetricians. Many gynecologic oncologists perform a permanent cerclage at the time of trachelectomy and recommend delivery via scheduled cesarean at term for all subsequent pregnancies prior to labor (usually 37-38 weeks).
At our institution, we recommend the use of progesterone from 16 to 36 weeks despite no clear evidence on the role of progesterone in this setting. Maternal-fetal medicine consultation should be considered to either follow these patients during their pregnancies or to perform a single consultative visit to guide antepartum care.
Some have advocated for less radical surgery, such as simple trachelectomy or large cold knife conization, as the risk of parametrial extension in these patients is low ( Gynecol Oncol. 2011 Dec;123:557-60 ). More data are needed to determine if this is a safe approach. Further, the use of neoadjuvant chemotherapy followed by cold knife conization for fertility preservation in women with larger tumors has been proposed. This may be a feasible option in women with chemo-sensitive tumors, but progression on chemotherapy and increased recurrences have been reported with this approach ( Gynecol Oncol. 2008 Dec;111:438-43 ).
Women of reproductive age diagnosed with early cervical cancer now have multiple options for fertility preservation. Ongoing research regarding obstetric and fertility outcomes is needed; however, oncologic outcomes appear to be equivalent.
Dr. Clark is a fellow in the division of gynecologic oncology, department of obstetrics and gynecology, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Dr. Boggess is an expert in robotic surgery in gynecologic oncology and is a professor in the division of gynecologic oncology at UNC–Chapel Hill. They reported having no financial disclosures relevant to this column. Email them at email@example.com.