Fewer side effects with therapy for head and neck cancer

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A type of radiation therapy called SBRT could come with fewer side effects for people with recurrent head and neck cancer.

Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) delivers pinpoint radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. A recent study found SBRT resulted in only half as many patients with recurrent head and neck cancer suffering severe, long-term side effects as compared to previously reported studies using more traditional treatment techniques.

The findings suggest the treatment could be a more attractive possibility for patients with few options left.

“We’re hoping that data like this will help physicians and patients understand and weigh their individual risks and benefits when deciding whether to pursue SBRT,” says Diane Ling, a resident in in radiation oncology residency program at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.

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For the study, researchers reviewed the outcomes of 291 patients treated by University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Cancer Center who had recurrent, previously irradiated head and neck cancer between April 2002 and March 2013.

In particular, they were looking for acute toxicity, such as severe difficulty swallowing or painful irritation of the mucosal lining while undergoing SBRT, or late toxicity, such as long-term difficulty swallowing or deterioration of the jaw bone that begins anywhere from three months to more than five years after radiation.

Overall, 11.3 percent of patients experienced acute toxicity and 18.9 percent late toxicity. Previous studies using older treatment techniques put those rates at closer to 40 percent.

The analysis also revealed that the location of the cancer recurrence was an important factor in the severity of the patient’s side effects. When it is on the larynx (voice box) or hypopharynx (beside and behind the voice box), the rate of long-term, severe side effects is typically worse, at about 50 percent.

“Toxicity, particularly late toxicity, can significantly affect the quality of life in patients who survive cancer,” Ling says.

“We can treat somebody’s cancer and possibly cure them, but if they are left with severely debilitating quality-of-life issues, what did we accomplish? It’s very encouraging to know that we can offer a treatment option with a relatively low rate of severe toxicity for most patients.”

Researchers presented their findings at the annual meeting of the American Society for Radiation Oncology.

Source: University of Pittsburgh