ASCO Guidelines: Management of the Neck in Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Oral Cavity and Oropharynx Guideline

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The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement. Hello and welcome to the ASCO Guidelines podcast series. My name is Shannon McKernin, and today I'm interviewing Dr. Shlomo Koyfman from the Cleveland Clinic, lead author on "Management of the Neck in Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Oral Cavity and Oropharynx: ASCO Clinical Practice Guideline." Thank you for being here today, Dr. Koyfman. It's a pleasure. So first, can you give us a general overview of what this guideline covers? Yeah, so this is an exciting guideline because it covers a topic that we don't usually think about in head and neck cancer in a formal way, and that is management of the neck in squamous cell cancer of the oral cavity and the oropharynx. So there's a lot of literature and guidelines out there on how to manage oropharynx cancer, which is becoming a more and more common cancer, especially in the HPV-positive era, less so on oral cavity. But a lot of times it's focused on people who don't get surgery, chemoradiation, or people who do get surgery and TORS, Transoral Robotic Surgery, and different approaches. But rarely do we have something focus on management of the neck per se, which is really, really important in these cancers and often overlooked in favor of the primary tumor itself. So these guidelines really take us through some salient questions in how to manage the neck in these two cancers. And what are the key recommendations of this guideline? The recommendations came off of six fundamental questions, three in oral cavity and three in oropharynx. There are some commonalities between the two and some differences. A lot of the fundamental questions revolve around surgical quality, and neck dissection is the standard surgical approach for management of the neck in these patients. And as we enter the quality era, how do we define benchmarks of surgical quality, which is one thing that it deals with. The other is when to do adjuvant therapy like adjuvant radiation or chemoradiation. We also deal with when to do surgery for the neck or to do nonoperative approaches like radiation or chemoradiation. And then lastly, how do you follow patients after you've treated them? So those are kind of the salient issues that we dealt with. And what we came out with was nothing earth shatteringly new, but I think the way it was organized and systematically put together, I think it's going to be really, really helpful for people. So some of the most important findings that this recommendation does, I think this is the first that incorporates surgical quality, as I mentioned before. So specifically neck dissection should have 18 or more nodes as multiple studies have shown that that's associated with better outcomes. And similarly we define for different diseases of oral cavity and oropharynx, and depending on what kind of tumor it is and where, what nodal levels should be dissected or treated, whether surgically or nonsurgically, and when to do just one side of the neck versus both sides of the neck. So I think there's a lot of good guidance there in terms of the surgical quality. From a standpoint of adjuvant therapy, we define pretty clearly indications for when after surgery for oral cavity cancer, for example, when radiation should be added and when chemoradiation should be added, and I think that's very helpful. And especially for the neck itself, there's been confusion about what happens if I have 30 nodes taken out and they're all negative but I have a big, large primary tumor. What do I do with the neck? Do I radiate it? Do I not radiate it at one side, both sides? And this guideline gives some pretty clear guidance in different scenarios about how to think about that, which is pretty novel and really important, I think. I get questions about this all the time. It comes up in tumor boards all the time, and it's pretty practical. And mostly what we say is if you have a primary tumor that's like a T3 or T4 oral cavity cancer or it approaches midline, either a contralateral neck dissection should be done or radiation should be done to the contralateral neck. And even if you have a lot of lymph nodes taken out and they're negative, if you have very high-risk primary tumor features like very large tumor or multifocal perineural invasion, those kinds of things, even with a negative neck dissection we still typically do treat the neck. So the next recommendation that's really helpful is who can be observed after surgery? And specifically low-volume N1 you can consider observing in oral cavity cancer, whereas N2 or N3 patients all need radiation or chemoradiation in the setting of extranodal extension and positive margins. We did come out pretty firmly advocating for bolus cisplatin 100 milligrams per meter squared every three weeks as recent studies suggest that weekly cisplatin or other regimens are not as effective, and we were pretty clear about that. We were pretty synchronized with recent ASCO-endorsed guidelines in oropharynx cancer that say similar things. In addition, one of the very important questions that comes up is a surgeon will say, well, I'm cutting out the neck tumor, and I know it comes to midline and he's got a bunch of nodes on the right side, but do I really need to do a left neck dissection? Aren't you going to radiate it anyway? And that comes up all the time. Is radiation adequate to manage a clinically negative neck in oral cavity cancer and oropharynx cancer? I think in oropharynx cancer everybody feels pretty comfortably yes. I think in oral cavity cancer it's been somewhat controversial. We favor neck dissections when possible, but if radiation is known to be happening, especially to an elective contralateral neck, that that is adequate therapy. However, we're pretty strong in the fact that neck dissections are the tried and true way to treat oral cavity cancer and that in a T2 or above tumor where a neck dissection is indicated, just resecting the primary and leaving the neck to elective radiation is not something that we thought there was enough evidence for to advocate, and we still advocate classic neck dissection first followed by adjuvant radiotherapy as indicated. One area of controversy that we did touch on is the issue of early stage tongue cancers and whether they need a neck dissection at all. And we came down pretty consistently with all of the co-authors on the guideline that we advocated for a neck dissection for all patients with oral cavity cancer unless it is a very small tumor that we define with very compliant patient who is amenable to very rigorous follow-up that has been done in Europe and in some other places with, specifically, people trained in careful neck ultrasound techniques. So all of those really help guide, both in early stage and more advanced stage, how to manage the neck and oral cavity cancer. And in oropharynx cancer, again, many of the same quality metrics apply. We have some guidance about when doing transoral robotic surgery how to reduce bleeding risk by ligating feeding blood vessels, which is an important addition. We also discuss the fact that, as opposed to lateralized oral cavity patients where a unilateral either neck dissection of radiation is often indicated, in oropharynx cancer the group felt very strongly that bilateral neck should be treated. And typically if tumors extend to midline or involve the posterior oropharyngeal wall, which has bilateral drainage, that either bilateral neck dissection should be performed in those cases or a unilateral neck dissection can be done as long as adjuvant radiation is planned to both necks. Finally, a couple of very important questions of who should not be treated surgically and who should be treated with a nonoperative chemoradiation based approach. In oral cavity cancer, as long as they were not metastatic, we felt people should be resected as long as they were surgically resectable and medically operable. In oropharynx cancer, however, anybody who had unequivocal extranodal extension of nodes into soft tissues or involvement to the carotid artery or extensive cranial-nerve involvement or skull-based involvement by extensive nodal disease are not good candidates for surgery and should be preferentially treated with chemoradiation. That was pretty strong. And finally, the other thing we gave clarity on is when we treat oropharynx cancer with chemoradiation, how do we follow them and when do we decide to do a neck dissection or not? And essentially we recommended a PET CT scan at 12 weeks. And as long as that was negative, a neck dissection should not be done. If you don't have a PET scan and you just have high quality CT or MRI but all of the neck disease has resolved, similarly there should be no neck dissection. And then most importantly, the situation we all face which is very complex is what happens when you have a PET CT done three to four months after treatment and you have small nodes that are still there? You have a little bit of uptake. The FDG avidity is much less than it was. There still is a lesion there, but it's much better and the patient is feeling well. And we felt pretty comfortable not doing a standard neck dissection on those patients but rather following them closely with a follow-up CT scan two to three months later and continual assessment and reserving surgery for obvious progressive disease. So why is this guideline so important, and how will it change practice? So this guideline is really important because head and neck cancer being not the most common cancer, and especially because head and neck cancer is not really one disease-- there's so many different diseases. Even oral cavity and oropharynx, there's quite a bit of variability in how we think about it. There's not a one size fits all recipe for how to manage people properly, and that leads to a lot of confusion and sometimes doubt as to what the best thing to do is in these patients. And that is a very common thing. So I think the most important reason why these guidelines are helpful is they're really clear. They give really clear guidelines of if you're going to do surgery, here's the expectations of what nodal levels to take out and how many nodes to take out. Here's when you should do adjuvant radiation. Here's when you should do adjuvant chemoradiation. Here's when you should treat one side of the neck. Here's when you should treat both sides of the neck. If you're not going to do surgery, here's when you do radiation. And for oropharynx cancer, here's when you can consider surgery. Here's where surgery is not the best idea. And when you treat them and if you do surgically, here's how you do it. If you do with radiation, here are the nodes that should be treated, the nodal levels. And finally, after you do that, how do you watch and act to make sure that people don't fail? So I feel like all of those things lend a lot of clarity to some complicated decision-making processes for these patients, and this really lends clarity to that, which should help kind of lend consistency of practice. That's really our goal. Our goal was there a lot of great docs taking care of these patients out there, but patients are treated in very different ways depending on who they're seeing and where you go. Our goal was to try to increase the consistency of how people are treated no matter where they are. And if practitioners, surgeons, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists see this guideline and kind of follow it and, of course, reach out with any questions at any time, then what we'll be able to do is kind of harmonize the way patients are treated in this country, which should help, I think, the quality of care. And finally, how will these guideline recommendations affect patients? They're going to affect patients because right now a lot of patients get great care, but there are some patients that are not getting ideal care either because maybe they're in parts of the country that don't have the same access to resources or they're in places where the volume of these kind of very complicated and yet not so common diseases aren't seen as high and there's confusion about how to manage them or what the quality metrics are. I think patients are going to be affected knowing, hey, if I'm going to have a neck dissection, here's what I should be asking to make sure my surgeon knows to do and does consistently to make sure it's of high quality. Here's where I think I should be treated with surgery, maybe I shouldn't be treated with surgery, and here's how to follow me. Because there is a lot of variability in how patients are treated, and sometimes there's too many surgeries being done, not enough surgeries being done. If they're being done, maybe they're not the best quality. Even if we don't treat with surgery and we do chemoradiation, we're watching them and we may not be following them as closely, and then people may be recurring and we're not picking it up closely enough. So I think it's going to harmonize, for patients, the way they're ultimately treated. If everybody in the country is treated relatively compatible with this guideline, I think the standard of care will go up across the board. Great. Thank you so much for your work on this important guideline, and thank you for your time today, Dr. Koyfman. Thank you so much. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning into the ASCO Guidelines podcast series. If you've enjoyed what you've heard today, please rate and review the podcast and refer the show to a colleague.

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