Therapeutic decision making in stages III and IV head and neck squamous cell carcinoma

Lyon L. Gleich, C. Michael Collins, Peter S. Gartside, Jack L. Gluckman, William L. Barrett, Keith M. Wilson, Paul Williams Biddinger, Kevin P. Redmond

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Background: The best treatment for advanced head and neck cancer remains unclear. Proponents of various therapeutic regimens continue to debate this issue with inconclusive and frequently biased data and with carefully selected patients in controlled trials to support their approach. To assess the outcome of patients in a real-world situation, we reviewed a prospectively maintained database of patients with head and neck cancer. Methods: We reviewed data from 591 consecutive patients with stage III or IV squamous cell carcinoma treated at a university medical center from January 1, 1992, through December 31, 2000, and analyzed survival using the Kaplan-Meier method. Results: Overall survival was 48%, 40%, and 33% at 2, 3, and 5 years, respectively. We found a significant death rate due to comorbid conditions. The primary tumor was treated surgically (with or without postoperative radiation) in 363 patients, with survival of 55%, 46%, and 38% at 2, 3, and 5 years, respectively. The tumor was treated primarily with radiation therapy (with or without neck dissection) in 193 patients, with survival of 40%, 33%, and 27% at 2, 3, and 5 years, respectively. Overall survival in the surgical group was better than in the radiation group (P=.005, log-rank χ2 test). The radiation group was subcategorized into those who underwent radiation because the tumor was so advanced as to be unresectable (n=86), because they were too unhealthy to undergo radical surgery (n=23), and because they elected radiation therapy (n=84). Survival in each of the radiation subgroups at 2, 3, and 5 years was 28%, 20%, and 14%, respectively, in the unresectable group; 34%, 22%, and 11%, respectively, in the unhealthy group; and 57%, 53%, and 46%, respectively, in the elective group. Thus, survival in the elective radiation subgroup exceeded that of the surgical group, although not statistically. We analyzed data regarding T and N stages, age, race, surgical margin status, postoperative radiation therapy, chemotherapy, radiation dose, and tumor site. Multivariate analysis of the surgical group and elective radiation subgroup showed that N stage and age were the strongest predictors of survival and that the method of therapy was not significant. For oropharyngeal cancer, the patients in the elective radiation subgroup did as well as the surgical group. Many patients were noncompliant with portions of therapy, with a resulting reduction in survival. Conclusions: The data demonstrate the value of analyzing a consecutive series of patients with advanced head and neck cancer. By including patients with comorbidities and those who are noncompliant, we determined a realistic expectation of patient outcomes. By including all patients, the data dramatically show the impact of age, comorbidity, and advanced stage on survival. The survival of patients who underwent elective radiation therapy in combination with neck dissection was similar to that of patients treated with primary tumor surgery. This was particularly true for oropharyngeal tumors. The site and stage-specific data are useful in counseling patients with advanced head and neck cancer regarding treatment choices.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)26-35
Number of pages10
JournalArchives of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2003
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Otorhinolaryngology


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