Chemotherapy plus radiation therapy for head and neck cancer increases survival rates of some patients

October 31, 1999

Adding weekly chemotherapy to radiation therapy significantly increases survival rates of patients with advanced head and neck cancer, a new University of Maryland Medical Center study indicates. The study found a 48 percent three-year survival rate among patients who received the combined therapy. The results will be presented at the 41st Annual Meeting of the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology (ASTRO) on November 1 in San Antonio, TX.

"The standard treatment for these patients is radiation therapy alone, says Mohan Suntharalingam, M.D., vice chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Maryland Medical Center and assistant professor of radiation oncology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "At best, only 20 percent of these patients who cannot have surgery survive for five years. While there is no available data to show a three-year survival with just radiation therapy, it's probably closer to 30 percent. So adding chemotherapy represents a dramatic improvement in treatment," says Dr. Suntharalingam who is principal investigator.

Sixty patients were enrolled in the study. During the study, patients received weekly doses of two standard chemotherapy drugs, carboplatin and taxol, used together for the first time, in addition to radiation therapy five times a week for seven weeks. The patients in the study all had locally advanced cancer and/or cancer that had spread to nearby lymph nodes. Each patient was monitored to see if the cancer had responded to treatment. In 70 percent of the patients who had the combined treatment, there was complete remission of the disease. Patients were able to tolerate the combined treatment well with some side effects, including difficulty swallowing and skin irritation, says Dr. Suntharalingam.

Typically, people at highest risk of head and neck cancer are those who consume large amounts of alcohol and who smoke. There are more than 12,000 new cases diagnosed per year in the United States. Head and neck cancer includes cancer of the tongue, larynx and tonsils. Symptoms include trouble swallowing and hoarseness.

When someone is diagnosed with head or neck cancer, treatment may include surgery to remove the cancerous cells, radiation therapy or both, depending on the stage of the cancer. In the group of patients studied, surgery was not an option because the cancer was too advanced. Radiation therapy alone was the only treatment option.

"This combined therapy gives us a new approach to fight this type of cancer," says Dr. Suntharalingam. "Potentially it could mean that even patients in the less advanced stage may be able to avoid surgery altogether and be treated with this combined therapy."

The Head and Neck Oncology Program at the University of Maryland's Greenebaum Cancer Center provides a multidisciplinary team approach of specialists in several disciplines including surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, nutritionists and speech and language pathologists. ASTRO is the largest radiation oncology society in the world, with more than 5,000 members.

University of Maryland Medical Center

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