Chest scans may help monitor spread of head and neck cancer in high-risk patients

October 20, 2008

Among high-risk patients with head and neck cancer, chest computed tomography (CT) may help detect disease progression involving the lungs, according to a report in the October issue of Archives of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Developing a second, distant cancer (a metastasis or a new primary cancer) is an important factor affecting survival of patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, which accounts for most head and neck cancers, according to background information in the article. The most common site at which such patients develop new metastases is the lungs, with an incidence of 8 percent to 15 percent. Chest X-rays are the most commonly used screening tool for detecting these malignancies but do not always identify early abnormalities.

Yen-Bin Hsu, M.D., of Taipei Veterans General Hospital, Taiwan, and colleagues evaluated 270 screening chest CT scans performed over 42 months in 192 patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. The scans were categorized as new cases, follow-up cases or recurrent cases, and results classified as normal or abnormal.

Of the 270 scans, 79 (29.3 percent) were considered abnormal, including 54 (20 percent) that identified a malignant neoplasm of the lung and 25 (9.3 percent) showing indeterminate abnormalities. "The rate of an abnormal scan was significantly higher in the follow-up case group (44.2 percent) than in the new case group (14.2 percent)," the authors write. Patients whose cancer was classified as stage N2 or N3 (indicating some degree of lymph node involvement), who had stage IV disease (in which the cancer has spread to another organ), who had recurrent disease or who had a distant metastasis in another site were more likely to have a malignant neoplasm of the lung.

"Indeterminate lesions were common on chest CT in our study, and special attention should be paid to them," the authors write. "Based on the progressive changes in follow-up scans, 44 percent of indeterminate lesions were eventually considered a malignant neoplasm of the lung. We also found that small (less than 1 centimeter) solitary nodules, which were usually resectable [operable], carried significantly higher chances (66.7 percent) of being a malignant neoplasm."

"For patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, chest diagnosis is crucial and may influence their treatment plan," they continue. "In conclusion, chest CT is recommended for high-risk patients, especially every six months for the first two years during the follow-up period, although its role is controversial for patients newly diagnosed as having head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. High-risk patients include those with N2 or N3 disease, stage IV disease or locoregional recurrence. For patients with indeterminate small (less than 1 centimeter) solitary pulmonary nodules, aggressive evaluation and management are imperative because of the high rate of a malignant neoplasm of the lung."
-end-
(Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2008;134[10]:1050-1054. Available pre-embargo to the media at www.jamamedia.org.)

Editor's Note: Please see the article for additional information, including other authors, author contributions and affiliations, financial disclosures, funding and support, etc.

The JAMA Network Journals

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