Purpose:

Elective neck irradiation (ENI) has long been considered mandatory when treating head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) with definitive radiotherapy, but it is associated with significant dose to normal organs-at-risk (OAR). In this prospective phase II study, we investigated the efficacy and tolerability of eliminating ENI and strictly treating involved and suspicious lymph nodes (LN) with intensity-modulated radiotherapy.

Patients and Methods:

Patients with newly diagnosed HNSCC of the oropharynx, larynx, and hypopharynx were eligible for enrollment. Each LN was characterized as involved or suspicious based on radiologic criteria and an in-house artificial intelligence (AI)–based classification model. Gross disease received 70 Gray (Gy) in 35 fractions and suspicious LNs were treated with 66.5 Gy, without ENI. The primary endpoint was solitary elective volume recurrence, with secondary endpoints including patterns-of-failure and patient-reported outcomes.

Results:

Sixty-seven patients were enrolled, with 18 larynx/hypopharynx and 49 oropharynx cancer. With a median follow-up of 33.4 months, the 2-year risk of solitary elective nodal recurrence was 0%. Gastrostomy tubes were placed in 14 (21%), with median removal after 2.9 months for disease-free patients; no disease-free patient is chronically dependent. Grade I/II dermatitis was seen in 90%/10%. There was no significant decline in composite MD Anderson Dysphagia Index scores after treatment, with means of 89.1 and 92.6 at 12 and 24 months, respectively.

Conclusions:

These results suggest that eliminating ENI is oncologically sound for HNSCC, with highly favorable quality-of-life outcomes. Additional prospective studies are needed to support this promising paradigm before implementation in any nontrial setting.

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