Oxygenation of head and neck cancer: changes during radiotherapy and impact on treatment outcome

Radiother Oncol. 1999 Nov;53(2):113-7. doi: 10.1016/s0167-8140(99)00102-4.


Background and purpose: To evaluate the long term clinical significance of tumor oxygenation in a population of head and neck cancer patients receiving radiotherapy and to assess changes in tumor oxygenation during the course of treatment.

Methods and materials: Patients with head and neck cancer receiving primary RT underwent pretreatment polarographic tumor oxygen measurement of the primary site or a metastatic neck lymph node. Treatment consisted of once daily (2 Gy/fraction to a total dose of 66-70 Gy) or twice daily irradiation (1.25 Gy/fraction to 70-75 Gy) to the primary site. Twenty-seven patients underwent a second series of measurements early in the course of irradiation.

Results: Sixty-three patients underwent pretreatment tumor oxygen assessment (primary site, n = 24; nodes, n = 39). The median pO2 for primary lesions was 4.8 mmHg, and it was 4.3 mmHg for cervical nodes. There was a weak association between anemia and more poorly oxygened tumors, but many non-anemic patients still had poorly oxygenated tumors. Repeat assessments of tumor oxygenation after 10-15 Gy were unchanged compared to pretreatment baselines. Poorly oxygenated nodes pretreatment were more likely to contain viable residual disease at post-radiation neck dissection. Median follow-up time for surviving patients was 20 months (range 3-50 months). Hypoxia (tumor median pO2 <10 mmHg) adversely affected 2 year local-regional control (30 vs. 73%, P = 0.01), disease-free survival (26 vs. 73%, P = 0.005), and survival (35 vs. 83%, P = 0.02).

Conclusion: Tumor oxygenation affects the prognosis of head and neck cancer independently of other known prognostic variables. This parameter may be a useful tool for the selection of patients for investigational treatment strategies.

MeSH terms

  • Anemia / complications
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / complications
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / metabolism*
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / mortality
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / radiotherapy*
  • Disease-Free Survival
  • Humans
  • Lymphatic Metastasis
  • Neoplasm Recurrence, Local
  • Otorhinolaryngologic Neoplasms / complications
  • Otorhinolaryngologic Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Otorhinolaryngologic Neoplasms / mortality
  • Otorhinolaryngologic Neoplasms / radiotherapy*
  • Oxygen / analysis*
  • Polarography
  • Survival Rate


  • Oxygen