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Postoperative radiation for squamous cell carcinoma metastatic to cervical lymph nodes from an unknown primary site: outcomes and patterns of failure.

Head & Neck 1998 December
BACKGROUND: This retrospective study assesses the outcomes and patterns of failure in patients with squamous cell carcinoma metastatic to cervical lymph nodes from an unknown primary site treated with combined surgery and postoperative radiotherapy.

METHODS: One hundred thirty-six patients with squamous cell carcinoma metastatic to cervical lymph nodes from an unknown primary source were treated postoperatively with radiotherapy at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center between the years 1968 and 1992. Stage distribution was: N1, 31 patients; N2a, 49; N2b, 25; N2c, 3; N3, 18; and Nx, 10. Thirty-nine patients had excisional biopsies only, 64 patients underwent modified neck dissections, and 33 had radical neck dissections. Extracapsular extension was present in 87 cases. Fifty-nine patients had multiple nodes involved. The median duration of follow-up for surviving patients was 8.7 years.

RESULTS: Twelve patients, all with extracapsular nodal disease, developed regional relapse. The 5-year actuarial rates of regional relapse in patients with and without extracapsular nodal disease were 16% and 0%, respectively (p = .004). Nine patients (22%) with extracapsular disease and multiple nodes relapsed compared with three patients (7%) with extracapsular disease and a solitary node (p = .02). None of the patients treated with excisional biopsy and radiotherapy relapsed regionally. No statistically significant relationship between dose, treatment duration, time interval between surgery, and the start of radiotherapy and relapse was detected. The 2-, 5-, and 10-year actuarial disease-specific survival rates were 82%, 74%, and 68%, respectively. Fourteen patients developed cancers in head and neck mucosal sites; six of these cancers were located in unirradiated tissues.

CONCLUSIONS: Relapse occurred infrequently in patients treated with excisional biopsies and postoperative radiotherapy. Extracapsular extension and multiple nodes were associated with worse regional control and disease-specific survival. These results appear consistent with those expected for patients with advanced neck disease and a known primary site, and the absence of a primary site should not exclude patients from studies aiming to improve outcomes in patients with extensive neck disease from a head and neck squamous cell cancer. We continue to recommend radiation to the necks and pharyngeal axis for patients suspected of having residual microscopic disease following surgery for squamous cell carcinoma metastatic to the neck from an unknown primary site.

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