A pleasant lady, 53 years old with long standing hypertension, presented with dysphagia symptom for 3 months duration.
She was diagnosed with base of tongue SCC, T2N2M0.
Discussion in multidisciplinary team (MDT) meetings
- Surgery or definitive concurrent chemo-radiotherapy (CRT)?
- Surgeon want to operate, I want definitive concurrent CRT (happen all the time, ha3)
- Rationale? With surgery, the risk of morbidity (possible mortality) and organ dysfunction (swallowing, speech).
- Also, post-op, patient will still need adjuvant treatment (radiotherapy +/- chemotherapy) due to stage of the disease.
- So, why subject patient to three different treatment modalities (surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy) when patient just need two (radiotherapy, chemotherapy) modalities to achieve similar results.
- Surgery can be kept for salvage treatment in future if disease recur.
Patient (usually the best person to break the deadlock) was not keen for surgery. Unfortunately, she just want radiotherapy and not chemotherapy initially.
Fortunately, she agreed for concurrent CRT after advice.
- What are the benefit of definitive concurrent chemo-radiotherapy (CRT)?
- What other option does she have? Concurrent bio-radiotherapy (BRT)?
Concurrent chemo-radiotherapy (CRT)
Evidence from multiple clinical trials involving thousands of patients support the use of concurrent chemo-radiotherapy because the proven improvement in survival and loco-regional control.
The chemotherapy used is either cisplatin or 5FU-carboplatin (for patients who unable to tolerate cisplatin) combination. These chemotherapy are widely available and affordable.
Absolute survival gained in 5 years was 6.5% compared to radiotherapy treatment alone.
Patients also need not afraid of chemotherapy causing harm to them because chemotherapy had been proven (see image) to be effective in reducing cancer death but does not contribute to non-cancer death.
My patients finally agreed for definitive concurrent CRT. I hope this can reassure other patients too who are afraid of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy saves life.
Concurrent bio-radiotherapy (BRT)
Fortunately, there is an alternative for those who are still worried and not keen for chemotherapy.
Concurrent bio-radiotherapy is substituting chemotherapy with an effective biologic therapy.
The evidence for bio-radiotherapy in head and neck cancers (oropharynx, larynx and hypopharynx only) came from one phase III clinical trial:
- Radiotherapy plus cetuximab vs radiotherapy alone. (JA Bonner, 2006)
- Average/ median duration of locoregional control was 24.4 vs 14.9 months for patients treated with cetuximab plus radiotherapy and radiotherapy alone, respectively
- 2-year loco-regional control rate (50% vs 41%) and 3-year loco-regional control rate (47% vs 34%)
- Average/ median duration of overall survival was 49.0 vs 29.3 months
- 3-year survival rate (55% vs 45%) and 5-year survival rate (45.6% vs 36%)
Absolute survival gained in 5 years was 9.6% compared to radiotherapy treatment alone.
Although the results were positive, the comparator arm for this study was with radiotherapy alone and not concurrent chemo-radiotherapy (gold standard).
The advantage of this treatment is the tolerability and minimal serious side effects.
Obviously, with more treatment, there will be more side effects.
There are more acute (occur during treatment) side effects in the combination treatment (CRT/ BRT) as compared with radiotherapy alone.
However, acute side effects such as mucositis, skin desquamation, diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, anaemia and infection are mostly mild and manageable if identified and treated early.
Late toxicities (side effects that occur after completion of radiotherapy) are mainly due to radiotherapy, not chemotherapy. With improvement in radiotherapy technology and techniques (more on this on later postings), late toxicitiescan be reduced significantly.
Concurrent CRT/ BRT offers patients an effective treatment against head and neck cancers and should always be offered as an option to patients besides surgery.